I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all your impurities, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts. I will put my spirit within you and make you live by my statutes, careful to observe my decrees. You shall live in the land I gave your fathers; you shall be my people, and I will be your God. – Ezekiel 36:25-28; Morning Prayer the 2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time
The above prophecy is fulfilled in man’s entering into his redemption and restoration by way of the sacrament of Baptism. Through the sprinkling of water we are cleansed from all our sins, are reborn and made a new man. We fell into corruption and are restored through new hearts and God’s own Spirit in us. Of particular interest for this post though is: “You shall live in the land I gave your fathers.” Like all of Holy Writ this sentence is layered with meaning.
The literal meaning refers to the physical land promised to Abraham and his descendants – the land of Canaan, Israel. Ezekiel was a prophet of the Exile. It was the land of their fathers – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – to which the Jews longed to return. They would return having been cleansed of their impurities through the Exile and the land would now be free of the many shrines in the high places that had once populated it. Their hearts would be changed and through the life-giving law they would live in accordance with God’s Spirit. Indeed, we see this happen first through the centuries of peace in which they would live with God, not mixing with the peoples around them through intermarrying, and then through the revolt led by the Maccabees following the zeal of Phineas (a man after my own heart). While it is not the restoration longed for by the coming of the Messiah, it is a real change in God’s people and a new stage in their progress towards the One prophesied to come. Jews then (I do not know how they interpret this now) looked to the restoration of the physical kingdom of David as the fulfillment of this prophecy.
Christians not only look to being given the land of our fathers as fulfilled both past and present, but we also look ahead to its completion in the end times. The land of our fathers points ahead to heaven – the true land of our calling and our resting place. To know something about this though we can and must look to the past. God – the One who is wholly other, transcendent, not part of creation – plunged into creation and so penetrated history; it is the intersection of the timeless with time.
It is significant that God refers to “your fathers” rather than the kingdom or just the land promsed. The nation of Israel during the period of the Judges, and the kingdom of Israel following it, were marked by a pendulum constantly swinging back and forth between faithfulness and faithlessness, right worship and idolatry, marriage and prostitution – all this while living in a land given by God and possessed by the people. Herein lies a key: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob dwelt in the land that was promised, but they did not possess it. They were strangers, set apart from other inhabitants of the land by their religion and faithfulness to God. In this condition they had for the most part rest and nearness to God. They did not have hearts of stone, but of flesh, and though they did not possess the law they did have God’s Spirit within them. This too is the state of the Church: it dwells in the land promised it, but it does not possess it.
Each Christian by virtue of their baptism is called to dwell in this land they do not possess. This is the importance of the historicity of Revelation: it is a fact of history; it has happened; it has been lived, is being lived now, and we know it is possible for us to live this way. It is not a myth. And while there is much required of us – just as there was much required of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – it is not dependent on us. We may have certainty in the gift – a certainty of faith even greater than that of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We dwell in heaven now, while sojourning on earth. We are called to live as citizens of heaven now, set apart from the citizens of the world.