Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome
First Reading: Ezek 47:1-2, 8-9, 12
We don’t like to be dry. Millions of dollars are spent on lotions that promise to moisturize our skin, shampoos that promise to prevent our hair from getting dry, and lip balms to relieve the dryness of our lips. When something is dry, it is desiccated, shriveled, used up, dead or dying. Leaves dry up and fall from the trees. Flowers wither. In time of drought, crops die. Dryness means death. In this Sunday’s first reading, the prophet Ezekiel paints a marvelous metaphorical picture of the river of life flowing out of the Temple and slaking the thirst of the desert. Instead of desert wasteland, the banks of the river teem with living things.
This passage comes near the end of the whole Book of Ezekiel. The prophet has communicated the judgment of God against Israel and other nations, which has come to fulfillment in the exile period. Finally, near the end of the book, Ezekiel announces God’s plans for restoring his people. The newly restored people of God will have a new temple, a priesthood, restored sacrifices, and an ideal Promised Land to inhabit. Ezekiel presents an awesome picture, full of detail, of what God’s saving and restoration of his people will look like. An angel leads him around the restored Jerusalem, even measuring out the dimensions of the ideal, rebuilt Temple. While it would be tempting to try and nail down every detail and insist that it be literally fulfilled in some way, I think the prophet is pointing to a powerful reality through this word-picture language: God’s deliverance of his people.
Water as Metaphor
The central image of our reading is water. Water flows out from the Temple and brings abundant life with it. Scripture often uses water as a symbol for spiritual refreshment. The Psalmist says “my soul thirsts for thee; my flesh faints for thee, as in a dry and weary land where no water is” (Ps 63:1 RSV). The Lord wants to quench our spiritual thirst with his presence: “He turns a desert into pools of water, a parched land into springs of water” (Ps 107:35 RSV). Water serves as a powerful metaphor because it is so necessary to human life: It refreshes the thirsty. It cleans the dirty. It gives life to plants and animals. It restores the world every spring. It causes crops to grow ready for harvest.
Water also conveys newness—the waters of creation and recreation. Water covers the earth at the beginning and it brings about physical and spiritual cleansing. It makes things new again. Ancient Jews would bathe in pure water in a mikveh in order to become ritually pure to enter Temple worship. This purifying ritual lies in the background in the ministry of John the Baptist, where he baptizes people as a sign of repentance. Finally, in Christian baptism, all of the water metaphors of the Old Testament are brought together. Jesus purifies the water of Baptism by his death and resurrection and through the sacrament of Baptism, cleanses us from the disease and dirt of sin, so that we might experience a spiritual springtime in him. In Baptism, we pass through the Red Sea like the Israelites (1 Cor 10:2), we are healed from the leprosy of sin like Naaman (2 Kgs 5:14), we come to life like the desert in Ezekiel’s vision.
River of Life
The river Ezekiel envisions starts as a trickle flowing out of the Temple, but as it goes along it gets wider and wider on its own. Notably, it flows eastward from Jerusalem and empties into the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is gross—I’ve waded in it. It’s a slimy, salty, stinky, muddy mess of a lake. People think its mud is good for the skin, so they cover themselves with it. But it is called “Dead” for a reason: it is so salty that no fish can survive in it. Ezekiel’s river runs through the Arabah, the desert running from the Sea of Galilee down the west bank of the Jordan to the Dead Sea. Not only does the river turn this desert alive with fruit trees which bear new fruit on a monthly basis, but it turns the deadest place on earth, the Dead Sea, into a virtual Garden of Eden with fresh water and an abundance of fish. Ezekiel even pictures fisherman flocking to the formerly-Dead Sea to haul in a catch (47:10).
Eden and the River
Importantly, I think Ezekiel wants us to intuit a connection to Eden. The Garden itself had a river which flowed out of it and then became four rivers (Gen 2:10). The Temple is frequently connected with the Garden of Eden in Old Testament, as the place where God dwells. If the Garden was a proto-Temple, then the Temple was a new Eden. The river of life also recalls Psalm 1 in which the just man is pictured as a “tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season” (Ps 1:3 RSV). The life and sustenance of the just is the word of God, the powerful presence of God which flows out of the Temple sanctuary.
The water brings great abundance and fecundity with it. This image implies a rich Scriptural concept, that goodness or righteousness is life-giving. Jesus teaches that a tree will be known by its fruit (Matt 12:33) and that fruitless trees will actually be cut down (Matt 3:11). In accord with this, philosophy observes that the good is diffusive of itself. By nature, goodness spreads and is fruitful. It has a healthy momentum. The presence of God flows out as a healing river from the Temple in Ezekiel’s vision to bring life to the dead places and restoration to the broken. Our God is the one “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom 4:17 RSV).
This reading invites us to look in awe upon the saving power of God, who in his mercy, reverses the fortunes of those who have sinned against him. He brings life to the dead and spreads his goodness richly. I think the reading also should lead us to self-reflection. Hopefully, our hearts look less like the briny Dead Sea and more like channels of the healing water of God’s presence. Next time you reach for a bottle of Dead Sea mud moisturizer, think of Ezekiel’s river. I hear it does wonders for dry, cracked deserts.