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Those who don't cry out loose God

Listening to Life/28 - The good things that survive give roots to the future and save all

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 31/12/2016

jacob y el angel 299x300"If you come across a bird's nest in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs and the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young. You shall let the mother go, but the young you may take for yourself, that it may go well with you, and that you may live long." (Deut. 22:6-7) - it is the same promise as the one saying: "honour your father and mother". It is said that Elishà ben Avujà once saw a man climb on top of a palm tree, on a Saturday, taking the mother together with the young birds from the nest. And he saw him come down uninjured. Another man, however, after the Sabbath, went up on the palm, took the little ones, and let them the mother fly off. He got down, a snake bit him and he died. Elishà said, "There is no justice, there is no judge." And he abjured. And how did Elishà show that he had lost faith? He did not build an atheistic philosophy: he uprooted a tuft of grass on the Sabbath day.

Paolo de Benedetti, Uomini e profeti, (People and Prophets), Radio3

A deep spirit of the culture of the West originates from the encounter and vital tension between ancient Greek and the biblical humanism. It is found in the philosophical genius of the Greeks, questing for the truth in an absolute freedom and free of any reference to the past, to tradition or sacred texts, and the biblical ethos, geared more to life than to truth, looking ahead; but it's not free or detached from the link with the beginning, because it is anchored in a first Pact and a compelling promise.

The origin had a force to tie, the future to untie, and together they supported the western world. This plural culture, bound and free at the same time, entered a deep crisis with modernity, when it started to lose contact with the source, and later with history. And so a brand new season of the future without roots has been opened, which has not brought about, until now, a new promised land of free people, but the nihilistic consumerism of the only present, with no past and, therefore, no future.

"Who is this who comes from Edom, / in crimsoned garments from Bozrah, / he who is splendid in his apparel, / marching in the greatness of his strength? »It is I, speaking in righteousness, / mighty to save.« Why is your apparel red, / and your garments like his who treads in the winepress? / »I have trodden the winepress alone«" (63:1-3). Someone passes under the walls, he wants to enter Jerusalem. The watchman performs his duty and shouts, "Who is there?". The traveller replies, "It's me". The watchman is the prophet; the one who passes under the walls with blood-stained clothes, like the one who was treading out red grapes in the vat, is YHWH: "It's me. It's me." It's God who enters the city, and the prophet, the friend of YHWH, asks him to reveal his identity. There are many hidden meanings in these opening words that, unique in their genre, start one of the last chapters of the Book of Isaiah. Perhaps there is the echo of ancient Middle Eastern tales about the duels of the gods, the warrior god or his fights against big monsters. The metaphor of the vineyard is, however, constant throughout the Book of Isaiah, and in the Bible in general. It's the image of, first of all, the people, its loyalty and rebellions. God is the vine grower, the one who builds and grows things with love, and the one who abandons it when it grows wild.

YHWH with the bloodied clothes says to the guard that he fought and defeated his enemies alone (63:3-6). But the sentinel knows that the enemies are not defeated, because they are inside the walls and dominating his people. In his occupied Jerusalem, YWHW is not a triumphant God: he is a defeated, absent God, who seems to have forgotten his covenant and promise: "Where is he who brought them up out of the sea / with the shepherds of his flock? / Where is he who put in the midst of them / his Holy Spirit" (63:11). "Look down from heaven and see, (...) Where are your zeal and your might?" 63:15) Where is your victory, then? What will our prize be for sacrificing our blood?

In this psalm of collective lamentation, which is the most powerful of the whole Bible, the God of Israel with an unpronounceable name takes the name of 'father': "For you are our Father, / though Abraham does not know us, / and Israel does not acknowledge us; ... you, O Lord, are our Father (...) we are the clay, and you are our potter;" (63:16; 64:8) Unlike neighbouring peoples, Israel did not use the word "father" for God, because they felt a theological need to distinguish their different and spiritual faith from the natural ones and fertility rites that was too strong for that. But that great collective pain, become prayer, was enough to put that wonderful word of the first language of the family of humanity on the mouth of the prophet - which says, among other things, how deep the link between the Gospels and the biblical tradition is, and that Christianity without all 'the Law and the prophets' is incomprehensible or simply gnosis.

That collective lamentation is intended to reach God-the-father directly, Abraham or Jacob (Israel) are not enough anymore. Tradition is not effective for faith if it is only a memory of the faith of yesterday. Biblical faith is historical faith, it is based on the past. But YHWH is the 'God of the living', not the god of the dead, and so he is the God of the here and now. The truth of the promise made to the patriarchs is in the experience of the God who is present and at work today. If YHWH is a true and living God, and not a character of distant or mythological tales, it is time for him to demonstrate his providence. Israel must remember, but no recollection, not even the greatest and most powerful one, can replace the personal and community encounter with God who is present. No faith lasts if it is only recalled, not actual or concrete. In the Bible, the past is not a mere recollection: it is memory, and memory is not a nostalgia for a happy reality that's lost forever. Every faith dies when memory becomes recollection or nostalgia. In the Bible, the past is alive, it does not die in order to become present, and it is the experience of the presence of YHWH, now, which makes the past real. The foliage is alive thanks to the root and, in turn, gives life to it through its encounter with light. It is the presence of YHWH today to guarantee that what we experienced yesterday - the pains, loves and the faces - is all still alive, even if it 'has left this world'. Biblical faith is therefore the rope (fides) that links the past, present and the future.

The most effective way, perhaps the only possible one, to continue believing in a liberation during oppression and despair, to believe in God during his absence is the use of memory to try and relive the same 'miracle' from the time of the first covenant. Lamentation is a form for the exercise of memory in the Bible. Lamentation, crying and asking God why he has abandoned and is absent from the world is a way of trying to cling to that rope. There are no limits to lamentation, you can say and shout out everything. It is just as radical and extreme as the experience of the absence - those who are afraid of the great lamentations and their anguish do not know the most sublime religious songs, even when they seem to be a curse or blasphemy to us. As long as we reproach God because of our misfortunes, as long as we quarrel with him we are still within the horizon of true faith. It's the end of the cry that marks the beginning of silent atheism - Jesus' cry of abandonment on the cross asked several unanswered 'why'-s that became the strongest threads of that same rope-of-faith: "Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down" (64:1). As long as we cry and complain because adult life seems to be the betrayal of the promises of the first meeting in our youth, we are still faithful to the first vocation.

That great collective prayer-lamentation has just ended, and here comes another wonderful image, taken again from the culture / nurture of the vineyard: “Thus says the Lord: / »As the new wine is found in the cluster, / and they say, ‘Do not destroy it, / for there is a blessing in it,’ / so I will do for my servants' sake«" (65:8). Here the prophet uses a beautiful saying ('do not throw away a bunch of grapes if some of it still has juice, because in that little juice a gift from God, a blessing is hiding'), and embeds it in the heart of his song. The entire bunch of grapes is saved and is not thrown away thanks to the life present in that small remnant: "I will bring forth offspring from Jacob, / and from Judah possessors of my mountains" (65:9). Bunches of grapes, vineyards and communities can be saved thanks to the blessing of a live remnant that has been able to conserve the spirit-juice of the whole. In order to save them we just have to be able to see where the little live juice is, watch it, and then wait for the blessing. A humble popular saying, similar to the many told by our country people, or those taught to us by our grandparents to pass on to us the value of and respect for our bread, the plants and birds. For life that is always being saved, from the beginning until the end. The Bible is a treasure of immense anthropological value also because of these bezels, these cameos of humanity, these simple and precious words of farmers, shepherds, the poor - that become the words of YHWH.

Blessing (Brk) is what the angel of God gives to the wounded Jacob-Israel after the great battle at the Jabbok River (Genesis 32). Blessing is given to those who save the dried-up bunch of grapes that's still alive thanks to the juice hidden in a few of its berries, perhaps in just one of them. The same blessing. It is not every day that we meet angels who fight and then bless us - and when we meet them we (almost) never recognize them. But we all can save a 'bunch of grapes' every day if we can see the remnant of life that survives in the midst of what appears dry and dead, in and around us. We will have finally learned the craft of living the day when we discover that the blessing hidden in the wounds that instruct us about life, people and God is the same blessing of the berry grape saved. Happy New Year everyone!

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