Resurrection is an old idea in Israelite belief. The beginnings of it appear in many of the psalms, including this week’s responsorial psalm, that celebrate God’s power to retrieve human life even from the jaws of the grave (e.g. Ps 30:3-4, Ps 49:16, and 130:7-8). A similar understanding appears in the narratives of Elijah and Elisha, who both raised the dead in the course of their ministry (1 Kgs 17:22; 2 Kgs 4:32-37). The God of Israel had power even over something as seemingly irreversible as death.
The prophet Ezekiel presents this tradition in a new way. Writing at a time when Israel’s population had been devastated by war and captivity, the prophet drew on these traditions to help explain the eerie vision in this Sunday’s first reading.
Then you shall know that I am the Lord
when I open your graves and have you rise from them,
O my people!
I will put my spirit in you that you may live,
and I will settle you upon your land;
thus you shall know that I am the Lord.
Ezekiel’s vision foretold a time of miraculous restoration, not just for the nation as a whole but even for those long dead. Early Christians believed deeply in these Jewish traditions of God’s power over death. Martha and Mary both demonstrate the kind of faith in God’s power over death that one finds in the Hebrew scripture.
Jesus develops this tradition even further. “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Jesus himself is the victor over death; death must follow his commands, even after days have passed. As John the Evangelist shows in this week’s Gospel reading, this is the case even before Jesus himself died and rose. As the incarnate God of Israel, Jesus is the master of death.
This week’s second reading helps us understand Jesus’ power. As St. Paul reminds his readers, “If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit dwelling in you.” Those who place their faith in Jesus can rely on his Spirit to conquer death and raise them up.
The Spirit is even at work against the forces that eat away at us while we still live. For many, faith and prayer support healing from physical illness. For just as many, the Spirit can overcome anxiety and fear. The Spirit raises up any who give of their resources, or forgive an enemy, or act with mercy toward someone who does not seem to deserve it.
As Christ’s disciples, we bear his power of resurrection and new life to others. So many of the people we meet are trapped in a spiritual death and spend their days waiting until their bodies follow into the grave. Just as Jesus stood at the door of his friend's tomb and shouted "Come out!" so we who follow Christ must call our brothers and sisters forth from the tombs that imprison them. In his Spirit, our every loving word can call forth new life even in the coldest heart. Our every loving act can strengthen dead hopes and renew faith long grown cold. As we follow paths of discipleship, we can give Christ the power to say of any who long to live anew, “Unbind them and let them go!”
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