“The Blessings and Lessons of Spiritual Exile” – Fr. Bob’s Homily for Sunday, March 26, 2023

The message of our first reading comes at the end of a vision the prophet Ezekiel receives while he is in exile in Babylon, together with many of the nation of Israel. In that vision, Ezekiel sees a field of dry bones being joined together into skeletons, taking on flesh, and then having the Spirit of God breathed into them to bring them back to life. After their defeat at the hands of the Babylonians and exile from their homeland to the country of their conquerors, the people of Israel felt spiritually dead. In their exile they repented for the sins which they believed had led to the destruction of their country and their present situation of slavery. What they needed now was hope, a prophetic message from God to turn their thoughts to the future, to a time of restoration. This was the prophet Ezekiel’s message. Keep the faith for you will rise again. 

 Why does the Church give us this particular reading during our Lenten season? Because during Lent we walk, spiritually, in the footsteps of Israel. Lent represents for us a kind of spiritual “exile”. We put ourselves through a time of sacrifices and deprivations to imitate the Jews’ experience in Babylon. The mood at Mass is somber, deep purple surrounds us everywhere we look in church, there are no flowers on the altar, there are no Alleluias sung, our joy is somewhat muted, while we wait for the end of our Lenten “exile” and the celebration of resurrection and new life at Easter.

During this time of our exile, we are meant to learn the same lessons Israel were forced to learn while they were languishing in Babylon.

Firstly, we must learn the depth of sin’s power and influence over us. Like Israel, faced with the brutal consequences of their rebellion against God, we cannot afford to fool ourselves anymore or make any more excuses. Our sin is our sin, our fault, no one else’s. Only as we face up to the fact of our sinfulness, and repent, can we have hope for forgiveness and a fresh start with God.  And we do have hope, as did Israel, because as our responsorial psalm says, “with you, O Lord, there is forgiveness, steadfast love and great power to redeem”. God is merciful and will never turn away a person with a humble, contrite heart (Psalm 51) 

Secondly, because with God there is “great power to redeem”, only God can save us from our sins and bring us back to life, eternal life, supernatural life, life to the full. Israel, before the exile, had turned their back on their God and gone after pagan gods, which were lifeless, man-made idols, unable to help anyone. Note the number of times God says in that first reading , “I”: “I am going to open your graves, O my people , and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up…I will put my spirit within you, and I will place you on your own soil. I have spoken and will act”. You see? God is proclaiming, almost thundering the fact that he, and he alone is Lord and God, and therefore only he can save and restore and revive. With our modern tendency to claim to be gods ourselves, and not to need a Savior, and our idolatry in creating our own neo-pagan gods, such as money and possessions and political power and influence, we need this spiritual “exile” of Lent to discover that, in fact, we are helpless and hopeless without God, and that none of these so-called “gods” can help us. We need this time of Lent to repent of our foolishness in turning our back on God and return to choosing him as the only Lord of our lives.

Thirdly, we need the Holy Spirit in our lives – always, always, always. We can do nothing without the power of the Spirit of God. It is the Spirit who, as our second reading says, makes us belong to Christ, makes us sons and daughters of God. As St Paul says further on in Romans: “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry “Abba! Father! it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ”  (Romans 8 : 14 -17). It was the same with Israel. Only the Spirit, the breath of God, could breathe new life, fresh life into them, and raise them up from the spiritual death of exile and restore them to their homeland, where they could make a fresh start in rebuilding their lives as individuals and as a community. Psalm 104: 29-30 says very clearly: “When you hide your face, we are dismayed, when you take away our breath, we die and return to dust and ashes. But when you send forth your Spirit, we are created a new, and thus you renew the face of the earth”. To try to manage our lives without the help of God’s Spirit is to be, in St Paul’s words, “living in the flesh”, unable to help ourselves, to heal ourselves, to deliver ourselves, to save ourselves. When do we receive that Spirit of God? At our baptism, and it is deepened at our confirmation. Baptism and confirmation for an adult usually takes place at the Easter Vigil ceremony at the end of Lent, when we celebrate all these things together: the end of our exile, restoration back to our identity as God’s children, forgiveness of our sins and a new pouring out of the Holy Spirit that brings us the assurance of life eternal and the salvation of God. In the joyous words of the hosts of heaven in the Book of Revelation: “Salvation belongs to our God, who is seated on the throne of heaven, and to the Lamb … To them belong blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might for ever and ever. Amen!” (Revelation 7:10, 12).