The prophet Ezekiel is not one of the most hopeful figures of the Old Testament. This following passage is a bit out of character for the rough-edged seer who dealt in dry bones and water gushing from the temple and chariot wheels aflame in the sky.
But if God speaks a word of hope, a faithful prophet will transmit. And so he does:
Thus the word of the Lord came to me:
Son of man, it is about your (kin),
your fellow exiles, and the whole house of Israel
that the inhabitants of Jerusalem say,
“They are far away from the Lord.
to us the land of Israel has been given as our possession.”
We have our setting: a humiliated nation in exile. For the Christian penitent, perhaps we often feel our sins and failures have brought us very far indeed from where we expected to be or where we wanted to go. A useful tool for encountering the Bible is to imagine ourselves in the predicament of those we are reading about. And while many millions of Christians are indeed in exile in the world today, these stories of Scripture are most effective when they are most personal. Our stories. Not others’.
Therefore say: Thus says the Lord God:
Though I have removed them far among the nations,
and scattered them over foreign countries,
and was for a while their only sanctuary
in the countries to which they had gone.
So we can ask and reflect: was there a time when God was the only one to whom we could turn? In our sin, have we yet reached that point? If we can say yes, then these words are oracles of hope:
I will gather you from the nations
and assemble you from the countries over which you have been scattered,
and I will restore to you the land of Israel.
They shall return to it and remove from it all its detestable abominations.
This theme should be familiar. Remember the Easter Vigil? Ezekiel 36 makes this familiar:
I will give them a new heart and put a new spirit within them.
I will remove the stony heart from their bodies,
and replace it with a natural heart,
so that they will live according to my statutes,
and observe and carry out my ordinances;
thus they shall be my people, and I will be their God.
One of the most beautiful images in all of Scripture. One also finds it in another reconciliation reading. God reaches deep into his daughter or son, and transforms us from the inside out. By placing a heart of flesh, the original creation is restored, and we once again the way God created us. These two verses, 19-20, are an alternate short form of this reading, recommended in the Rite of Penance #73 for the reconciliation of a single penitent (form I).
In the communal liturgy, I think the whole longer passage works better.
A final word of warning, Ezekiel can’t resist:
But as for those whose hearts are devoted to their detestable abominations,
I will bring down their conduct upon their heads, says the Lord God.
God deals with us firmly–how could we ask for anything less? And yet his tenderness and mercy are unexpected transplants into our lives. Let’s be watchful for them, and embrace it when it occurs.