Fathers of the Wind and Dawn

Listening to Life/13 - The victory over death is in the son - in every son

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 18/09/2016

Portatore di pane Lovanio rid"There is no prophecy that is not apocalyptic, starting from the Book of Isaiah. The oracles of the prophets are overflowing with the future, and a future that is inseparably apocalyptic and messianic. If the prophecy appears when the people are deep in the abyss, it is because there is no creation without chaos."

 Sergio Quinzio, Un commento della Bibbia (A Commentary on the Bible).

The prophets are never soft on money. They know its charm and ability to seduce the human heart very well, because it presents itself as an idol promising to quench our thirst for security and our need of salvation, and, like all idols, asking everything from us in exchange. Isaiah, too, gives us some wonderful words about money at the end of his oracles on the nations, before introducing us in his Apocalypse-revelation. The destruction of Tyre, the image of the power of Phoenician trading, is described with the metaphor of the prostitute who is no longer young and wanders the streets in search of new customers: "Take a harp; / go about the city, / O forgotten prostitute! / Make sweet melody; / sing many songs, / that you may be remembered." (Isaiah 23:16)

Business is mercenary trade, profit a shameful gain. But a way of conversion is offered to money and its Phoenician traders, too: "Her (Tyre's - the tr.) merchandise and her wages will be holy to the Lord. It will not be stored or hoarded, but her merchandise will supply abundant food and fine clothing for those who dwell before the Lord." (23:18) The accumulated gain is a curse; money, if used to 'supply abundant food and fine clothing', is 'holy to the Lord'. The thirty silvers of Judas were money, the two denars that the Samaritan used to have the innkeeper attend to the beaten man were also money. The gold that the Jews carried on themselves fleeing from Egypt was used in the desert to build the tabernacle in the ark and to forge the golden calf. The same gold, the same hands, opposite destinations. At first, our civilization forgot how to distinguish the golden calves from the tabernacles, then it merged the tabernacles to mould new idols, and in the end it decreed the 'death of God' after having turned him into a useless gleaming idol that's increasingly distant from the Bible and ever more similar to the ancient cults of worship of Baal. The prophets are a great gift because they call the idols by their name and distinguish them from the ark of the covenant, and because they know how to remain, even if in pain, in front of our forges where the last tabernacles keep entering and industrial quantities of golden bulls continue to emerge.

The chapters of the so-called 'Apocalypse of Isaiah' (chapters 24-27) help us to enter into a new dimension of the prophetic vocation and every authentic vocation. We find that Isaiah, too, has his 'secret' and his 'revelation' (apocalypse), a secret that reveals his mission and his fate: "I waste away, / I waste away. ("It is my secret, it is my secret" - word-by-word translation of the Italian original - the tr.) Woe is me!" (Isaiah 24:16). We do not know what that secret really meant, because of the corruption of time and (perhaps) the copiers and commentators. However we can and must guess and try to say something. What we know is that the secret of Isaiah has nothing to do with the mystical secrets of a certain apocalyptic writing (after him), with mysterious numbers and letters that have always populated religions in times of spiritual decadence - and therefore is going through a great revival nowadays. We may think that the secret of Isaiah is his vocation. It is the consciousness of being inhabited by a voice that makes him see things that cause a lot of pain to him. "Woe is me! For the traitors have betrayed, / with betrayal the traitors have betrayed. Terror and the pit and the snare / are upon you, O inhabitant of the earth!" (24:16-17) His prophetic eyes show the world to him as a great performance of betrayal and deceit. He sees-feels that betrayal is the ordinary condition of all men under the sun. We all become traitors, at least once. We betray our friends because we are not generous enough, our children when we turn them into our idols and 'household gods', our spouse at least in the 'heart', our colleagues and managers when we leave the soul outside of the office, entering it with the naked labour contract. We betray our voters when our private interests uses the words of Common Good only to seduce them. And above all we betray ourselves when we have the gift of recognizing the true voice but we do not listen to it. We all become traitors, almost always, at least once. Our heart makes us forget the betrayals we have done and received, the heart would not endure them all. But the prophets see them, they suffer for us, they cannot forget them because if they forgot them they'd stop loving us, they would remove the opportunity to redeem them. And they continue to see our destruction, infidelity and betrayal. Yet, they remain as 'watchmen' and inhabitants of the night: their more dilated pupils make them see the silhouettes of night shadows better, and herald the dawn that is not there yet. They see the pain, the mistakes and sins of their people and they know they can do nothing, or just little, too little. Therefore, 'Woe is me!' means: 'poor me'. The prophets received more gifts than the non-prophets, but if they are faithful they suffer more. They see more and differently, and therefore they suffer more and differently. This 'suffering of helpless eyes' is an essential part of the calling of the prophets and of the charismas (that carry on the prophetic function in history). It is their daily bread along with the typical and wonderful joys that are the other side of these vocations - although they see them, they do not console themselves with what's beautiful because the pain of non-beauty that they see more is stronger. They are suffering from seeing too much and being able to do too little, from feeling an almost infinite power in the gaze that becomes infinite helplessness in alleviating the pain of the world. Those who learn to live in this form of suffering, to inhabit it, do not betray their vocation. Those who can stay in this impotence and do not decide one day to tear their soul's eyes for too having seen too much remain firm in it. Many prophets fall by the wayside or become false prophets (who do not suffer because they do not see things), because they cannot stay in this typical pain that lasts a lifetime and increases with age - it's hard to answer a call when we are young and even more difficult to remain faithful to it when we are old.

To express this dimension of his 'secret', the prophet uses the image of the birth pangs of a woman ending without the joy of the arrival of a baby: "Like a pregnant woman / who writhes and cries out in her pangs / when she is near to giving birth, / so were we because of you, O Lord; / we were pregnant, we writhed, / but we have given birth to wind.” (26:17-18). Giving birth to wind, generating vanitas. Labour pains without a baby: what could exceed this pain? Isaiah, a man, in order to give words to this dimension of his vocation can only resort to the most intimate female experience which is a mystery for him that the gift of prophecy allows him to intuit, by taking the flesh of his word. Isaiah knows he has "accomplished no deliverance in the earth", he has "not generated a new people", that the almost infinite power of his word did not manage to conquer death ("They are dead, they will not live; / they are shades, they will not arise" (26:14). And it is at this point that his word is sublimated and the song of messianic hope begins, it comes out of his day and enters 'that day': "In that day the Lord with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent" (27:1). The Leviathan, the great sea monster that devours and kills whatever comes its way will finally be defeated, The vineyard will not be destroyed and abandoned (cf. chapter 5), but, in that day, it will be "A pleasant vineyard, sing of it! / I, the Lord, am its keeper; / every moment I water it. / Lest anyone punish it, / I keep it night and day" (27:2). We do not know - Isaiah does not know, no prophet knows - when 'that day' will come: but, with him, we can still believe that it will come. I know that I will not be seeing the dawn of that day, I know that 'you' who will sing the 'song of the resurrected vineyard' will be a son, a grandson, a child of the world. This generosity is the profound nature of hope. But while the people who were 'still in darkness' read these words of Isaiah, it also anticipated that salvation, already drew from its springs. This is the first miracle of the word: while today we read and tell each other the words of hope of tomorrow, our returning begins in the exile and we begin to perform various actions that tomorrow will make those words that give us hope today become flesh. And that's where the helplessness of the prophetic eyes turns into a mysterious and real power of the gaze that's become spoken and written word. Prophets are the keepers of time between our-and-their day and that day that has not come yet. They give birth to wind to allow us to generate children.

Isaiah continues the revelation of his secret, and he tells us that on that day something unthinkable and impossible will also happen: "Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. / You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!" (26:19) There is no greater helplessness than what we feel in the face of death. All the prophets all go through the same helpless suffering we feel, but they feel it stronger and always, not just when their children and friends die.

So maybe in that the dawn of the 'first day after the Sabbath', there was all this pain of the prophets about the dead that had not risen, the pain of humanity over the graves of their daughters and sons. Faith tells us that it was the Father who resurrected the Son; but life and that faith suggests that it was also the endless helpless pain of mothers and fathers across the millennia to resurrect that special Son, and to make us hope in the resurrection of our children and our friends. In that night there was all the Law, there were all the prophets, and there was all the helpless pain of the earth. It was there, and it continues to be there.

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