God Transforms the Hearts of Men
The canticle that we just heard with our ears and with our hearts was composed by Ezekiel, one of the great prophets of Israel. Ezekiel witnessed one of the most tragic periods in the life of the Jewish people: the collapse of the kingdom of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem, followed by the bitter experience of the Babylonian exile (sixth century B.C.). This passage, which is taken from Chapter 36 of Ezekiel, has become part of our Christian morning prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours.
The context of these words, which our liturgy has transformed into a hymn, seeks to understand the deep meaning behind the tragedy that the people experienced at that time. The sin of idolatry had defiled the land that the Lord had given as an inheritance to Israel. This, more than any reason, was ultimately responsible for the loss of their homeland and their scattering among the nations. Indeed, God is not indifferent when it comes to good and evil; he enters mysteriously into the unfolding history of mankind with his judgment, which, sooner or later, will unmask evil, defend its victims and show us the path of righteousness.
For Our Well-Being
However, the purpose behind God's action is never for ruin, pure and simple condemnation or wiping out sinners. The prophet Ezekiel himself refers to the following words from God: “Do I indeed derive any pleasure from the death of the wicked? … Do I not rather rejoice when he turns from his evil way that he may live? … For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies, says the Lord God. Return and live!” (Ezekiel 18:23, 32). In this light, we are able to understand the real meaning of this canticle, which is brimming with hope and salvation. After a time of purification through trial and suffering, the dawn of a new era is about to begin, which the prophet Jeremiah had already proclaimed when he spoke about a “new covenant” between the Lord and Israel (see Jeremiah 31:31-34). Ezekiel himself, in Chapter 11 of his book of prophecies, had proclaimed the following words from God: “I will give them a new heart and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the stony heart from their bodies and replace it with a natural heart, so that they will live according to my statutes and observe and carry out my ordinances; thus they shall be my people and I will be their God” (Ezekiel 11:19-20).
In this canticle (see Ezekiel 36:24-28), the prophet refers once again to this prophecy and gives some precise and amazing information: the “new spirit” that God will give to the children of his people will be his Spirit, the Spirit of God himself (see verse 27).
God Renews Our Hearts
What is proclaimed, therefore, is not only a process of purification, which is expressed through the symbol of water that cleanses impurities from our consciences. This aspect of deliverance from sin and evil (see verse 25), though necessary, is not the only aspect. The accent of Ezekiel's message is, above all, on another aspect that is even more amazing. Actually, mankind is destined for a new life. The primary symbol of this is the “heart,” which, in biblical language, refers to the inner being, a person's conscience. Our cold and insensitive “stony heart,” which is a sign of our obstinacy in doing evil, will be removed from our breast. God will replace it with a “natural heart,” which is a source of life and love (see verse 26). The spirit of life, which made us living creatures at the time of creation (see Genesis 2:7), will be replaced in this new economy of grace by the Holy Spirit, who will sustain us, move us, guide us toward the light of truth and pour out “the love of God into our hearts” (Romans 5:5).
The Gift of God's Spirit
In this way, the “new creation” described by St. Paul (see 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15) will emerge, when the death within us of the “old self” and the “sinful body” will be affirmed so that “we might no longer be in slavery to sin” but new creatures, transformed by the Spirit of the risen Christ: “You have taken off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed, for knowledge, in the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:9-10; see Romans 6:6). The prophet Ezekiel foretells of a new people, which, in the New Testament, God himself will choose through the work of his Son. This community, formed by people with a “natural heart” and with the “spirit” put in them, will experience the living presence of God himself working in their midst, inspiring believers as he works within them with his efficacious grace. “Those who keep his commandments,” St. John says, “remain in him, and he in them, and the way we know that he remains in us is from the Spirit that he gave us” (1 John 3:24).
Seek the Lord
Let us conclude our meditation on the Canticle of Ezekiel by listening to these words from St. Cyril of Jerusalem who, in his Third Baptismal Catechesis, perceived in these prophetic words the people of Christian baptism.
In baptism, he reminds us, all sins are remitted, even the most serious transgressions. For this reason, the bishop addresses the following words to his listeners: “Have confidence, Jerusalem, the Lord will wash away your iniquities (see Zephaniah 3:14-15). The Lord will wash away your filth; … he ‘will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all your impurities’ (Ezekiel 36:25). The exultant angels surround you and will soon sing: ‘Who is that coming up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved?’ (Song of Songs 8:5) It is, in fact, the soul that before was a slave but that is now free to call the Lord her adopted brother, who, accepting her sincere intentions, says to her: ‘Ah, you are beautiful, my beloved, ah, you are beautiful!’ (Song of Songs 4:1). Thus he exclaims, alluding to the fruits of a confession made with a good conscience. … The heavens desire that everyone … keep alive the memory of these words and draw fruit from them, translating them into holy works so that you may present yourselves irreproachable before the mystical Spouse and obtain from the Father the forgiveness of sins” (No. 16: Le catechesi, Rome, 1993, p. 79-80).