By Victor Lee Austin
In the preface to his 2004 commentary on the Song of Songs, Robert Jenson quoted the invitation that came to him to write that commentary: “‘Every systematic theologian,’ they said, ‘should write biblical commentary at the end of his career.’” He saw the point but added that he wasn’t certain how to take “that reference to ‘the end of his career.’” It was mordantly funny to read that 13 years ago. Today it is just sad.
The end of his career. There will be no more Robert Jenson books, no more learned articles, punchy essays, captivating sermons, wine-drenched symposia driven by his wit and insight. The books, the words that he penned, they will endure at least for a while, for as long as the paper does not crumble or the electronic data files into which books are turning survive into whatever future may be before our human race — the books may or, we can indeed hope, will endure and find ever new readers, but the flesh, the breath, the animation of his body has gone. To use a Shakespearian line: We are here not to praise Robert Jenson but to bury him, to remember him with love, to commend him to God. Today it’s “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” just as long ago it was said to our primal ancestors, “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
When we stand at the edge of death, curl our toes over the edge, and look down into the pit, we see but the starting line of a long process of dissolution and decay. With the hand of the Lord upon him, the prophet Ezekiel was brought to the end of the process. Addressed by the Lord as son of man, he, living human, is placed down in the midst of the valley at the end of the world, and it is a valley far, far beyond the starting line of death. There is no stench here, no smoldering fire, no belching crevasse, no decay at all (for there is nothing to decay) — just bones, many bones in the open valley, very dry. These bones are, as Jens noted in his commentary on Ezekiel (for that on the Song of Songs was not his last), all strewn. There are no skeletons. There are “no personal identities — no one can even point and say, ‘Alas, poor … I knew him well.’” None of that. Death is not just the cessation of respiration; it creeps ever further until there is nothing but scattered bones.
The prophet will learn from the Lord that these bones are the whole house of Israel. Israel in exile — disobedient Israel, exiled Israel — thinks it has come to complete disintegration, that nothing is left. In this, Israel is representative of humanity, even as Adam was at the beginning. And in Adam, all die.
But the prophet, addressed by the Lord as “son of man,” is also a kind of representative. In his function of standing in for us, the prophet has a question to answer. Son of man, can these bones live?
He does not answer the question. But think of what the question means. If we face facts about human disobedience, human dissolution, death, decay, the corruption of data files, the corruption of civic life, the eventual explosion of our own sun and the unending expansion of our universe into cold lifelessness: Can we look at any of this and say, no problem, temporary setback; just give us time, we’ll get all this turned around? Son of man, can these bones live? There is no human ground for saying yes, and every reason to say no. In the end, what meaning can life have? You might love a few people, you might do a bit of good, you might even write a few books, but all it comes to is … dry bones.
But Ezekiel, representative human, son of man, apparently has faith. He does not say it is possible for the bones to live. Nor does he deny it. Instead, he turns the question back to the Lord. O Lord God, thou knowest.
It is a tiny movement, but it is the pivot upon which a vast future creaked into being. For the Lord then tells this son of man, Prophesy upon these bones, tell them that the Lord will lay sinews upon you … bring flesh upon you … cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live. And he prophesies, and all the bones in the valley come together, and sinews and flesh come upon them, and following a second prophesying, wind comes — and they stand upon their feet.
The history of the world, the destiny of our race, and the meaning of every individual life is found in such a tiny movement, when one decides not to foreclose the possibility that God might be able to pull off something that seems to us flat impossible, in which decision (crucial point) we submit ourselves to the Lord. Be it unto me according to thy word is one such movement. Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit is another.
For indeed the one who is called the Son of Man, our supreme representative, inaugurated in his undecaying flesh the reversal of the dissolution process. In obedience with his Father, in solidarity with his followers, in perfect love, he rose triumphant, the first of many from the dead. Jens wrote that when Ezekiel prophesied, “Even in the nonbeing of death the bones can hear him, because the word given the prophet is the same word that gives being and life in the first place, that addresses precisely [as Saint Paul wrote] ‘things that are not’ (1 Cor. 1:28).” Now that’s absolutely incredible—yet also, since it’s the Word of God, it’s supremely creditable.
To this I will add a personal word. In the midst of the heartbreak of death, which is poignantly the loss of the enfleshed presence to me of one I loved, I find it truly (overused word) awesome to think that Jens has passed into a mystery. How can it be that the dissolution — death — is not the last word? How can it be that the bones (as Jens wrote) “even in the nonbeing of death” can hear God? How can it be that the divine Word addresses us from the far side of death? We do not know how, but, O Lord God, thou knowest!
What is now for us to do is to commend Jens to that Word who has overcome death and who speaks to the dead, to that triune Identity who summoned by speech all things into existence and whose word can raise the dead: we commend Jens to Jesus his Lord. Blanche, whose love for and companionship with Jens is proverbial; and Kari, and Lucky, and Solveig, and Stella: what everyone who is here today wants to say to you is we love you; we are here today to be with you. Our paths continue, for now, together; Jens’s path diverges from ours. He has gone off (as have so many others) where we cannot follow, not yet, perhaps not for a long time. We go a different way.
Yet someday — it may be short, it may be decades, but someday we too will hear that voice, that prophesying word of the Son of Man. May we in that day hear the noise and the shaking, as the shock wave of the great reversal races through the universe, bones coming together, and the sinews and skin, and the wind, and finally, we stand upright on our feet. Then we will know that God is the Lord, and that he has spoken it, and performed it.
The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is theologian in residence for the Diocese of Dallas and Church of the Incarnation, Dallas.