Can these dry bones live?
It’s a quotation from the book of the prophet Ezekiel, but is also found as an inscription or rather a title of a Victorian painting of a young woman leaning on a gravestone and pondering this question.
It’s easy for us to think that we are the first sceptics, the first people to have doubts; doubts about cherished beliefs. Looking at the grave, the woman in the picture is clearly finding it difficult to imagine that the bones will indeed live again.
The question, I think, is probably as old as human consciousness. It is certainly found on the lips of the prophet Ezekiel. As someone said: human self-consciousness is caught between these two incontrovertible facts: There was once a time when we were not yet, and there will be a time when we will be no longer. Upon the face of the latter, we find that we have projected both our hopes and our fears. We hope that something of who we are, either will continue to be or will be again at some point in the future. We fear, however, that when the end comes it will be the end.
As we ponder the mystery of Holy Week and Easter, the question is written all over the story of Christ’s passion, burial and resurrection. (A bit of a health warning: I am going to deny something that I expect others may hold to be true). It is certainly true that the Gospels record Jesus as predicting that he will rise again. But I want to say that I believe that in his mind this was a statement of faith not of certainty. Had he been certain, I do not believe one could say he was fully human. In the garden of Gethsemane, we see the agony of Jesus as he prays to the father, praying that there could be another way. He is scared, frightened that what approaches will not be the prelude to a final victory over death but his ultimate end.
Now of course there will be those who are certain of the resurrection to eternal life; as certain as the knowledge that the sun will rise every morning. I cannot claim to have anything like that sort of certainty. So, I believe that it is important to acknowledge our doubts and fears before God, just as Jesus acknowledged his doubts and fears before the Father. This is what makes him fully human, and without a full humanity, the incarnation: God with us as one of us, makes no sense.
Can these dry bones live? To believe that they might is an absurdity. Corpses do not start breathing again, get up and walk about. I know this. Most people at the time of Jesus knew this, and his disciples certainly knew it, which is why they had scattered after the crucifixion and why they were slow to believe talk of Jesus being raised from the dead.
Talk of the resurrection confronts us with a choice:
The easy answer is to say this is a fantasy born out of grief, corpses do not get up and start breathing and talking and eating. That is the easy response to talk of resurrection.
The difficult way is to embrace the impossible absurdity that the resurrection is, and live as if it were the case; that the Creator, the Immortal, became creature and mortal, and faced mortality with all the uncertainties with which we face it - absurdity number one. That the Creator, the Immortal, died - absurdity number two. That the Creator, the Immortal, the all knowing, should do such a thing without the knowledge of how it would turn out - absurdity number three. That the Creator, the Immortal, rose again and in so doing has defeated death - absurdity number four.
Vicar’s thoughts for April 2018