This Is Where God Is

Listening to Life/19 - It is the world he reveals himself in and where we can meet him

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 30/10/2016

Albero statua crop ridPerhaps a feature of the crucified face lurks in every mirror; perhaps the face died, was erased, so that God may be all of us. Who knows but that tonight we may see it in the labyrinth of dreams, and tomorrow not know we saw it.”

J. L. Borges, Dreamtigers (English translation by Mildred Boyer and Harold Morland)

The value of the lives of the prophets does not lie in our ability to imitate it. The false prophets are the ones who present themselves as role models, but true prophets know that if they show themselves as the ethical realization of the words they announce, they end up becoming idols, and so they obscure their ideal just like an eclipse. The prophets are valuable insofar as they are inimitable and different from us. Isaiah did not save his people through his disciples imitating him, who, if they had been limited to this, would only have downsized his message and betrayed his memory. The signs and prophetic gestures are really powerful when  they come from prophets, but they become parodies or comedies when we make them to imitate the prophets.

We don't have to walk around barefoot for three years to imitate Isaiah, we don't need to show up with a yoke on our shoulders in the city to repeat what Jeremiah did, nor should we get crucified or rise again to imitate Jesus Christ. These gestures are made by vocation and not by imitation; when we feel called by name and we can understand that it's the only thing we can do in the hope of being able to save something beautiful and true inside the soul. And while we're in that state of bare feet, under that yoke, on that cross, which is only ours, and therefore unique, unrepeatable and inimitable, the gestures and words of the prophets are nurturing for us, they become our travelling companions, they make our yokes easier, our deaths sweeter.

We arrived to the end of the Cycle of Hezekiah that closes the chapters of the first Isaiah. We have just seen that righteous king victoriously emerge from the test that was represented by salvation from the idolatrous Assyrian king, thanks to the essential role played by Isaiah. Now the Book shows him struggling with another different and great test, still with the Prophet at his side: "In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him, and said to him, »Thus says the Lord: Set your house in order, for you shall die, you shall not recover.« Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord, and said, »Please, O Lord, remember how I have walked before you in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.« And Hezekiah wept bitterly." (Isaiah 38:1-3)

Isaiah is the one that announces to Hezekiah that his disease is fatal. Not all of us have a prophet to tell us that the last stage of our lives has come, or someone close to us who loves us and so tells us that we are about to reach the end of the race. No one would like to announce to their friends that their last day is near. We want to tell them other words (don't give up, you'll surely recover', 'we'll make it through'...), to give them hope that's not vain, to offer them a glimpse of a resurrection. Sometimes, however, we cannot say these words if we want to be true. So we prefer to stay silent, holding the lump in our throat, hugging and stroking them, and above all, stay there. Every now and then, though, there is a friend, a wife or a brother, who feels that the greatest love is to tell us that our time has come. And so Isaiah lives again, Hezekiah lives again, even if they do not know, even if we do not know - the world is full of living passages of the Bible that are embodied by people who have never read or heard a single line of it, some passages that are no less true than the ones we recite every morning: if it weren't so, the Bible would be just a holy book for the religion, and not even a living history that continues to give life through the love and pain of the many who are illiterate in religion but able to write beautiful passages in the real book of life.

We walk the earth knowing that this magnificent spectacle that enchants us with its beauty is not there forever, that one day we should leave the mountains, the flowers, our friends and the sea behind. We know that this 'forever' is not ours. There is also this vein of melancholy in the happiness that restores to us the possibility of looking at (and taking in - the tr.) a vast landscape, an autumnal forest, a son. But life is greater, and when it grows well and blooms, the excess beauty of creation covers out that thin shadow, and even though it is surfacing in the days of sadness it cannot become the dominant theme of our existence. Until 'that day' comes and everything changes. What used to be the wonderful background of our journey is suddenly revealed as what it really was: just a gift, a big, great, overflowing gift. All is gift: the people, the friends, our family, the families and children of others. According to the Bible the presence of God in the world is a gift, too: "I shall not see the Lord, / the Lord in the land of the living; / I shall look on man no more / among the inhabitants of the world." (38:11) It is always wonderful and amazing to find these words in the Bible. For the biblical man, the place of religious experience is not heaven: it is the earth, the only place that is given us for the theophanies, to speak with the angels and feel the touch of God. And this is wonderful news. It is the earth where Abraham heard the voice of Elohim, it is the earth where YHWH spoke to Moses, the Promise is a promise of the land and not of the sky. It is the earth where prophets saw the Lord, it was a sea of this earth that one day opened to free an enslaved people. It was the earth of the Golgotha to collect the blood of the crucified one, the earth of the tomb received his body. The land of Galilee saw him risen, and it is the quality of life on our earth that gives meaning to the resurrection - Paul tells us that our faith is in vain without the resurrection of Christ, but the resurrection is in vain without our faith, which is only possible on this earth.

If biblical faith is still true today, then Elohim must continue to be heard, seen, met on this earth. There was no need of biblical revelation for faith in a god or immortal gods that live somewhere in heavens: it was already present in the religious imagination of the peoples. It is easy to be atheists denying a heavenly god, and far, far more difficult to be atheists of the biblical God, because we need to address him, fight him and win him on this earth, in its nightly ford. So the only hope we for being able to close our eyes 'that day' and open them again in a different way but really there is having glimpsed the divine here with our eyes, having heard some murmur or echo of its voice, having recognized it on the mouth of prophets - at least having wished for, or dreamed of it, even if only once.

Death could not be seen by Hezekiah and his contemporaries as the 'gate of heaven' for the righteous, but as the end of the gift of life and the beginning of something dark and scary: "I am consigned to the gates of Sheol (the netherworld - the tr.) / for the rest of my years." (38:10). The story tells us that Hezekiah wept bitterly. Unlike the patriarchs of Israel, he is not 'full of days': "In the middle of my days / I must depart" (38:10). Premature death is therefore clothed by a further meaning of divine punishment, linked to some fault (which is typical of retributive religions deeply rooted in the ancient world, including Israel). The king is righteous, he does not accept death with resignation, and he prays: 'Remember, Lord, that I have walked before thee in faithfulness'. We are never ready to die, because it is the only act of which we cannot get a first hand experience. We learn to die by experiencing the death of others that are torn from us, and so we never form a friendship with our death. But when death comes in the middle of life it is truly the great 'enemy' that bursts into the night to steal, to cut down, to sickle: "like a weaver I have rolled up my life; / he cuts me off from the loom" (38:12) So Hezekiah cries and screams: "Like a swallow or a crane I chirp; / I moan like a dove." (38,13-14).

This cry of the righteous king becomes a powerful and miraculous prayer. YHWH hears it, intervenes, and sends Isaiah again to bring the glad tidings of salvation this time: "I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold, I will add fifteen years to your life. I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria"(38:5-6). God is 'moved' by the tears of Hezekiah. Just like by those of Hagar, when having been chased away by Sara she wept in the desert, and the first angel came to her to comfort and save her.

Isaiah announces the salvation of the city to the king, as well as his healing and the gift of many more years of life. It is the resurrection of Hezekiah. When the time of our fatal disease comes, when we fall deep in anxiety and our cries explode and our tears start pouring, we do not see the prophets arriving to bring us the good tidings of a resurrection. But it can happen, sometimes, that we come out as winners from a struggle with cancer that seemed mortal, and so find ourselves alive after having seen death approaching on the horizon. And, sometimes, we recite Hezekiah's psalm of praise. At other times, most often, we cry aloud, we chirp and moan like swallows and doves, we keep praying to the end for ourselves or for those we love, but life does not come back. Even when no further years are given to us, we can sing the song of the psalms, we can call the prophets and their God to our bedside, because if we have met them him least once we can meet him again. And if we've never met nor longed for God and the prophets, or if we have known them and longed for them when we were young and then decided to forget them in the hope of becoming adults, we can always relearn a final prayer, and make a good friend recite it for us. And then trustfully wait for the angel's embrace.

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