The Old Testament reading set for Morning Prayer today is Ezekiel 12:1-16. The context is this: Judah and its capital Jerusalem had been a vassal state to the neo-Babylonians; following a rebellion, many of the people of Jerusalem, including the priest Ezekiel, were carried off into exile; several years later, following a second rebellion, the remaining members of the royal court and civil service were also taken into exile.
Today’s verses are set between those two deportations. God instructs Ezekiel to enact for the already-exiles the impending second and more decisive wave.
The people are identified as having eyes but not seeing, and ears without hearing. Or, at least, they are short-sighted and hard of hearing, in need of a corrective lens and a hearing aid. This, in the context of relationship to their land, to place. While there is much to be said about rootedness, those who have only ever lived in the same place, among a stable community, at very least risk becoming blind to their own construction of life: the way we do things appears self-evident; even if, with a heady dose of nostalgia, we might say things have gone into decline, possibility is constrained, and we double-down on a sense of pride in contrast to the ways of others.
The experience of exile—even as temporary and privileged as holiday abroad—can open our eyes to another way of living. Indeed, Spain is home to a great many English expats, who prefer the way of life—a complex construct!—as well as the more reliable sunshine. But even expats, even any exile, may have blind-spots, may take a defensive stance.
Ezekiel is instructed to prepare, and publicly carry, an exile’s baggage. Exiles tend to carry limited physical baggage. Back in 2005, our family explored moving to Australia for a few years. We gave away many of our possessions, packed clothes into two giant cases, and stored our remaining furniture in a freight container, to be shipped around the globe. In the end, we did not go. For some, the physical baggage is no more than the clothes on their back and whatever items they can carry. But physical baggage is only the tip of the iceberg.
An exile’s baggage is mostly internal, and invisible. Memories of what you are leaving behind. The ghosts of futures that will not come to pass. The hopes of new beginnings. Family ties, being stretched across vast distances, or severed. A whole culture, unmoored from its artefacts. How to sing a familiar song in a strange land? Only an exile can know an exile’s baggage; but even then it is not automatic. Make it visible, Ezekiel, make it obvious.
And then, he is to dig through the wall. A city has many gates, often each gate associated with a different community within a wider community: a trade guild, an ethnic group. You pass through, or are denied access, in, or out. Belonging, status, control—you, having control; others having control—all play their part. When a city falls, exiles stream through the gates; but not otherwise. At the gates, you are a traveller, a businessman, a tourist. Love, actually, is all around us, at the arrivals and departures gates. Until everyone is forced into exile, exiles don’t use gates. They might cross borders at night, or the sea in an overloaded dinghy. The ones who do sit in a departure lounge do so oblivious to the fact that they are about to be an exile, to have their life changed, even in two weeks in the sun. Exiles dig through walls with their bare hands.
Being an exile is hard work. And, in a sense, it does undermine the walls of a community, the defences they have constructed to keep themselves safe from outsiders. Ezekiel is an exile who is digging a hole out through the walls within which his fellow exiles have constructed a new life. What he enacts speaks to those back home—you, too, will go into exile—but also to his fellow already-exiles: the wall, the gates, these things are not the same for you. Even if you are accepted at the gates, you won’t be fully accepted, you might not fully accept yourself there. You are different now, neither fully of your home nation/town, nor fully of your host or adopted nation/town, but one who makes holes in the walls and glass ceilings, provisional, subversive, back-breaking hard work.
Those who have experienced exile know just how hard, how unjust and unfair, how tragic and ridiculous life is. And how wonderful, how utterly wonderful. They might even discover the loving-kindness of a faithful God, whose nature is revealed afresh in the experience.