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The Magnificent Art of the “Stabat”

The Dawn of Midnight/25 - The risk of the encounter and the moral climb of the world

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 08/10/2017

171008 Geremia 25 ridGreet the banks of the Jordan
and Zion's toppled towers.
Oh, my country so lovely and lost!
Oh, remembrance so dear and so fraught with despair! 

T. Solera e G.Verdi, Nabucco/Nabucodonosor (English translation by Norman Tucker and Tom Hammond

We can imagine the ending of a story a thousand times and have a certain idea of it because the end was already inscribed in the many signs that we have found and interpreted. But when that ending really arrives it's always different. We knew that little Marco would grow up to be a man, and when one day we realized that that beautiful "child" of ours was no longer there, our emotions and tears were all different, and beautiful. We have predicted and said endless times that our bad actions would lead us to the end, but the day we really took the books to court, it was all different, with pain and real tears that we had not been able to foresee. We had prepared our last day in community until the last small detail, but when we really closed the door of the room behind us for the last time and crossed the doorway forever, what happened in the depths of our hearts was totally new; we could not know either the taste of the last bread eaten with our companions, or the nostalgia for heaven that accompanied us throughout our life. We didn't know, we couldn't know, we didn't have to know it in order to try to make that impossible flight. We can and must prepare for it, we can and must accept the idea of the certain arrival of the angel of death with gentleness, but when it really happens the angel of death will not be as we have dreamt, and we will be surprised that while living our life we have also learned to die. But we could not know this in advance, otherwise it would not have been the greatest gift.

For forty years Jeremiah had seen, heard and said that Jerusalem would be destroyed, her citizens killed and all survivors deported. But the day that the Babylonian army really entered the city, when the temple was destroyed, women, men and children were really killed, was surely a different day for him, a certainly more painful one. The prophets, unlike us, do not rejoice in seeing the corpse they have announced floating in the river, they do not say "I told you” with malignant satisfaction. They die twice: when they announce the end, and when they see it accomplished before their eyes, experiencing it in their own flesh. “In the ninth year of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the tenth month, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon and all his army came against Jerusalem and besieged it. In the eleventh year of Zedekiah, in the fourth month, on the ninth day of the month, a breach was made in the city. (...) The Chaldeans burned the king's house and the houses of the people, and broke down the walls of Jerusalem” (Jeremiah 39:1-2;8). After the city fell, King Zedekiah tried to escape to save his own skin (39:1) - how many times we have seen it again throughout history! But he is captured near Jericho, and subjected to the most atrocious torment. “The king of Babylon slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah at Riblah before his eyes, and the king of Babylon slaughtered all the nobles of Judah. He put out the eyes of Zedekiah and bound him in chains to take him to Babylon” (39:6-7).

In the general chaos, Jeremiah ended up in prison again, among the Jews destined for deportation to Babylon. After capturing Zedekiah, the Babylonians left a Jew, Gedaliah, who was not of the Davidic dynasty, as governor of the "rest" who remained in the country: “Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard, left in the land of Judah some of the poor people who owned nothing, and gave them vineyards and fields at the same time” (39:10). It’s one of the not so rare cases when being poor becomes a sign of providence. The humble are exalted and the rich are sent away empty-handed. As for Jeremiah, whose fame as an anti-resistance prophet was also known among the Chaldeans, “Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon gave command ... saying, »Take him, look after him well, and do him no harm, but deal with him as he tells you«” (39:12). The captain of the guard said to Jeremiah: “»Now, behold, I release you today from the chains on your hands. If it seems good to you to come with me to Babylon, come, and I will look after you well, but if it seems wrong to you to come with me to Babylon, do not come. See, the whole land is before you; go wherever you think it good and right to go. If you remain, then return to Gedaliah the son of Ahikam, son of Shaphan ...« So the captain of the guard gave him an allowance of food and a present, and let him go” (40:4-5). Jeremiah is liberated and he also receives a gift. We don't know what this gift was, but it is still significant to encounter the gift at the end of a central episode in Jeremiah’s story. Gifts are very serious things, they are at the heart of life and death. The Bible knows this, and places a gift inside a liberation, as a sacrament of a decisive choice. We have confined gifts to the field of the non-necessary and, often, useless; the Bible doesn’t: it places it in its rightful place, at the crossroads between freedom and slavery.

Jeremiah is now in full freedom to choose where to go. His recognition by the Chaldeans had earned him the privilege of being able to decide about his own fate. Going to Babylon would have meant protection and security, perhaps a place in the court of Nebuchadnezzar. However, “Jeremiah went to Gedaliah the son of Ahikam, at Mizpah, and lived with him among the people who were left in the land” (40:6). Jeremiah decides to stay; he uses the privilege of freedom to remain among his own people, among the poor. Why? Maybe he hoped in Gedaliah, a member of a friendly family of his (26:24). Or perhaps he stayed because his conscience or the voice simply told him to remain in the devastated country, among the remnant made up by the poor - the true prophets are at home only among the poor. The only way you can decide to stay in a devastated and desolate land is because you feel that you have to stay in it. Many people flee, others are "deported" elsewhere by life. Someone, one person, however, remains. When all that remains of the community that had been the great dream of youth, the promised land is but a heap of rubble, there are always many who flee, but someone decides to stay. He cannot explain the reasons that make him stay, he only knows that he must remain - imperatives of the soul exist on earth. Perhaps he doesn't even choose to stay: he just stays and that’s all. Perhaps because of that strange fidelity to the land, inscribed in the chromosomes of the heart, which he inherited from his parents and grandparents, who had taught him with the magisterium of dignified poverty that fidelity is more destiny than choice, it is a mutation of the flesh, it is a call of origin. Because life is a serious thing, and you have to get to the end, learning the magnificent art of the "Stabat". He doesn't know why, but he remains, he doesn't leave like and with the others, when, being Jeremiah, he could have done so. Staying when one could leave has an immense moral and spiritual value, it is a very precious common good. Cities would remain destroyed and in ruins forever if there was no one who decides to stay even if they could leave - if there wasn't at least one such person. It’s among these people who are capable of remaining in the destroyed cities that the true prophets of our time should be sought: in the long and silent faithfulness in the middle of ruins.

In the very first few months, Jeremiah sees his prophecy fulfilled. Gedaliah showed himself to be a wise leader. His new residence became a meeting place for the dispersed Jews and a centre of rebirth: “And they gathered wine and summer fruits in great abundance” (40:12). A hope that lasted very little, however, because Ishmael, a member of the royal house of David's lineage, plotted a conspiracy against Gedaliah: “Ishmael the son of Nethaniah and the ten men with him rose up and struck down Gedaliah” (41:2). The "basket" had some rotten figs in it (24,8), and everything got rotten. However, the tragic story of Gedaliah is very important and beautiful. The text presents him to us as a truly wise and righteous man. Johanan, an officer, warned him that Ishmael was arriving to kill him on behalf of the Ammonites. Johanan tells him, “Please let me go and strike down Ishmael ... Why should he take your life...?” But Gedaliah replies: “You shall not do this thing” (40:15-16). Johanan, however, was right. Ishmael came, Gedaliah welcomed him as a guest, and was murdered by him while “they ate bread together” (41:1)

There have always been cases of hosts killed by their guests. But much more numerous are the hosts who were blessed and made better by their guests. Humanity became more human every time when the pain and fear for the murderer guest in the neighbouring house did not kill our freedom to open our door with confidence and generosity to the unknown guest arriving. Throughout history, the real winners were not the Benjamites from Gibeah (Judges 19-21), nor Polyphemus, even if their shadow keeps reappearing and threatening people all too often. When we welcome a guest into our house, we open our hearts and our table, we cannot always know if those entering are "angels" (Hebrews 13:2) or Ishmael the murderer. Gedaliah paid with his life for his choice of hospitality. He preferred to risk his encounter with the other, he was not prudent, he did not believe what Johanan had said. But that sacrifice of his allows us to indignate ourselves, to condemn Ishmael and to strengthen the good reasons for hospitality.

It is not the good stories with a happy ending that strengthen the deepest collective moral conscience of peoples. The most important ethical norms are formed in the continuous exercise of approval and indignation of people and characters that we have never met, starting with the fairy tales of childhood (the flesh and blood people around us are not enough to form our feelings: we also need a reality intensified and extended by the great biblical word and literature). The people that stops reading and telling their great stories is navigating itself towards the greatest kind of famine: that of empathy and indignation, the pillars supporting every good and righteous common house, and every human heart. A mortal wound of a righteous person brought about by an agapically imprudent act becomes a nail driven into the rock wall to continue the moral climb of the world, to a height that the sum of a thousand prudent actions without wounds does not reach or even touch - Christianity did not invent the agape: it recognized and exalted it. We were able to perceive the special resurrection of Christ because the Bible had resurrected many righteous people by cherishing their crosses and narrating them for centuries under the tents. Gedaliah did not die forever: he re-lives every time we read the Bible, smell his innocent blood, and recognize him in the victims of the earth. And then we continue to open the door.

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