The Things of the Spirit
Bones tell stories. I have heard a few. In August 2000, I walked with a group of students into a room full of bones in Guatemala City. The bones had been recovered from mass graves around the country, bones left in the earth during the decades-long civil war between leftist insurgents and the government’s army; a war that killed, by the U.N.’s conservative estimate, over 200,000 people, mostly Mayan villagers. In 1996, the United Nations estimated, after twenty- plus years of civil war, that 93% of the killings were performed by government soldiers or paramilitary groups; 4% were performed by insurgents, and 3% were un-attributable. My students and I walked into a large hanger of a room in which cardboard boxes and metal tables held the bones that were left from indigenous Mayan villagers. Each table held the current reconstruction – the best idea they had – of one person from a mass grave. If articles of clothing still adhered to a piece of bone, great – surviving family members could be even more able to identify the bones. “She loved that skirt.” “This was his shirt.” This was all before DNA identification made such work much easier. This was really biological and sociological forensics – is this the femur that could go with that ulna, where was it all located in the mass grave, what clothing fragments are nearby, and where was Maria last seen alive? My students and I walked into that room and lost every interest in chatting, conferring – we were in the presence of the hopefully-reassembled, the dead, complete and innocent martyrs, pulled out of shops and homes and churches and schools to be gunned down to teach the region a lesson. We saw on the metal slabs the skulls, the spines; we knew every one was imago dei, a beloved child of God. What a blessed project for Guatemalan and other archaeologists – to reassemble the bones, to put dead people back together, to hope to give them now a proper burial in their community’s churchyard, near their mother’s stone, to bring them home, to give them the honor they deserved, and to bring peace and closure to their families.
Also with students, in 2011 I found myself at one of the killing fields outside the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. We saw the pits where excavations still are done to find all the bones of innumerable persons butchered. We heard the most awful stories of how they met their ends in that place; we saw the burying pits with pieces of clothing and bone still sticking out from the ground. And we saw the central memorial to them all, a massive pyramid made of their anonymous skulls. Those skulls looked at us, the visitor, and they said, “I died innocently in this place. What are you going to do?” And I walked away wondering about how I should answer their question with my life. The Cambodian people are right – build a pyramid of skulls, facing outwards to all directions, and let the testimony of the murdered innocent be: now that you’ve seen me, what will you do? Bones tell stories, and they also ask questions.
Not every assemblage of bones that I have seen was made out of atrocity. I have been, thanks to Princeton Professor Wolfgang Danspeckgruber, to the monastery school in Austria of St. Florian. There, in the crypt, is buried the composer Anton Bruckner, who grew up as a pupil there. It was where he wanted to be in eternal rest; he insisted upon it. He had wanted to be included in the beautiful collection of skulls and bones that reside in the crypt, lovingly assembled by the brothers, in a perfect stack. He was considered too significant simply to join the pile and so resides in front of it in his great sarcophagus - exactly one floor beneath the cathedral’s great organ on which he learned to play. Those skulls, those bones, that look out at the visitor, they do not call for justice. They lived, they died, they testified to their faith as ordinary women and men of villages nearby – some died too soon, some in great old age. But every one reposes exactly where they wished to be.
Bones tell stories. These bones, if we could hear their tales, would be ones of love, and loss, and faith, and illness, and joy, and of hope upon hope of life in the resurrection. Bones tell stories. They watch us. They bless us. They challenge us.
In a vision, the prophet Ezekiel comes upon a valley of bones. Dry bones. Really dead bones – desiccated, almost turning to powder. These are bones, we are meant to understand, that are way beyond our identifying. Bones tell stories, and even these most parched and calcified specimens do the same. They are the “whole house of Israel” – these are not the dead Israelites of earlier wars and pestilences, these are the ones who made their forced, tortuous way into exile, and while there perished in spirit from loss of meaning, home, hope. These aren’t the battle - or pestilence - dead, they are the living dead in exile. They are living but dead, whole but dismembered; they are bleached out, evaporated, the marrow of their life is gone. They have yet to physically die, but they are already dead – dismembered – by despair.
And to them God tells Ezekiel to prophesy! You have a story, you bones, but that story isn’t over. God Almighty is the master storyteller and God’s narrative isn’t over. Your blanched dismemberment and utter powerlessness is not the end of the tale – it’s only where you are at the moment. You have suffered a death of the spirit, and so although you live you are like a valley of scattered bones. Ezekiel’s prophecy uses, nine times, the word “ruach,” or “spirit.” “Ruach” is the word at the beginning of Genesis that tells us that God’s spirit blew over the waters in the act of Creation. Now, Ezekiel tells the bones that God’s spirit will enter them and breath will be put in them and just so – clackety clack! From across the valley, the exiles in Babylon are reassembled; their spirits are enlivened by that of God; they are given new life.
Churches around the world read this text in later Lent, a reminder to ourselves as we journey through our own valleys of challenge and repentance, that the promise of resurrection awaits us at the end. But let’s also hear the Good News of this text for our lives at this very moment. We, the living, may be dead or dying in spirit. Life can be so hard, losses so profound, the daily grind so demoralizing, that we can end up a desiccated, scattered collection of bones. God has both the ability to revive us and the loving desire to do so. Ruach – the very spirit of God – enters us, too, when the life has gone out of us. There is resurrection ahead for us, and thank God, but there is new life available to us right now, wherever our old bones are, and how can we ever adequately convey to God our thanks.
To the believers in Rome, the Apostle Paul writes of this very fact. Because of Christ - he tells them - our new life in the Spirit is available to us now, not just at our life’s end. We live right now in a new reality, and its foundation is not the despair, hopelessness, or sin we might experience all around us; it is rather the new life in the spirit that we access through Jesus Christ. He tells us, “to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” We are to set our minds on the things of the Spirit, we are to orient our lives to the things of the Spirit, and no despair will ever be able to deprive us of the life that really is life.
Bones tell stories. What will be the story that our bones tell? To what will they testify? By God’s grace, not the stories of despots, death squads, massacres, and mass graves. Pray God, they will testify to long lives of humble service. And if we so choose, they will testify to hope in the midst of challenge, peace in the midst of violence, love in the face of disinterest or hate, faith in the resurrection opened to us by Christ, all in the days when the sun shines gloriously upon our lives and when it does not. These are the things of the Spirit, and they are the inheritance of all of Christ’s followers who choose to live by them.
Bibliography: Feasting on the Word Year a, Vol. 2, pp. 122-127.