The consolations of Prophecy

Listening to Life/20 - Faithful to the people and God, even when he seems to be defeated

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 06/11/2016

Fiore cigno rid"I am not my contemporary, no poet is. I am your contemporary, every poet is."

Giovanni Casoli, Tutto è intimo (Everything is intimate)

Nahamù nahamù ‘ammì: "Comfort, comfort my people" (Isaiah 40:1). These words begin the second part of the book of Isaiah. This work was written by an author who remained unnamed, but identified as a member of the school of the First Isaiah and chosen by the biblical tradition to include within the same roll. It's a different author who lived about two centuries after the first prophet who was the "son of Amos'", but not at all inferior to him in terms of his prophetic and poetic strength.

The Second Isaiah is the prophet of the Exile. He acts and speaks during the Babylonian exile, the most dramatic experience of the ancient history of the Jewish people. We are too accustomed to interpreting success as an indicator of a truly realised life to understand the prophets and the realization of their vocation. We find it very difficult to understand that their most beautiful words have flourished during great failures. The enormous test of exile – the military defeat, the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, the exile in a foreign land – generated wonderful pages and sublime words about hope and faith that continue to feed us after thousands of years, and, above all, that brought about an epochal religious revolution.

The experience of exile was a political and civic event, certainly, but it was also a theological one. That great calamity taught the Jews – and so all humanity – that God can also be true and living even as a homeless God. And it forced them to answer a new, radical and tremendous question: how to go on, after the exile, to believe in the God of the times before? To keep the faith after the great battle the charisma of the prophets was needed, that of Jeremiah, Isaiah and the genius of the Second Isaiah. This anonymous prophet was capable of a threefold extraordinary move: a) lead the people of the Babylonian captivity back to the will of YHWH, b) thus saving the truth of God and the promise, c) promising a new, credible liberation. Even if their defeat had been willed by God to punish them for their infidelity, their release is still possible. An essential precedent to accomplishing this very difficult task were the judgements of the First Isaiah about the infidelity of the people and its leaders, his harsh words on false sacrifices in the temple. The prophecies of condemnation of the First Isaiah became the material for the building up of the prophecy of salvation of the Second Isaiah. The stone which the people had rejected became the cornerstone of the new house. Allowing prophets to criticize the community today (in times of freedom and joy) makes it possible for tomorrow's prophets to prophesy a non-vain type of salvation in times of slavery and pain. Stuffing their mouth to prevent them from criticizing the status quo and always looking for a consensus means to deprive ourselves of the only chance of salvation during future exiles. The criticism of non-false prophets is always a high expression of agape and the common good, but we do not know this and we continue to silence them. The pandering praises of false-prophets are, however, always common evil, but we do not know this and continue to listen to them, especially during crises.

Thus the Second Isaiah managed to transform a great misfortune into a great message of salvation, generating a new faith. The God defeated by a people of different and shining gods could still be the true God even if he had become a defeated God. And hence the emergence of the knowledge that truth does not coincide with power and force, that the true God is not the God who helps us win wars, and that the military defeat is not a religious and spiritual defeat, too. That true spirituality can hide inside a great failure, that suffering is not a curse but it can become a broad way to salvation: "A voice cries: »In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; / make straight in the desert a highway for our God. / Every valley shall be lifted up, / and every mountain and hill be made low; / the uneven ground shall become level, / and the rough places a plain.«"(40:3-4). These words bloom only on the mouth of the prophets, in the time of the exile.

The great challenge and the great temptation of the exile was the one concerning religion. Finding themselves and their hearts in the captivity of a massive empire, between towering statues carried around in spectacular processions in very wide streets became a constant and perennial questioning of the truth of the faith of their fathers. For centuries they had believed in the first promise, they had learned to distinguish their God from the idols and other gods, they believed that their Elohim was different – with an unpronounceable name, impossible to be represented, touched or seen – because he was the faithful and true God, because he was the creator of heaven and earth for everyone, even of those who worshipped other gods. They had believed that YHWH would protect them from their enemies, that he would not deliver his people to the hand of the enemy and that his temple was indestructible. They had believed that the crossing of the sea was their final liberation, that they would never be slaves again. No one could even think that the true God would bring them back into slavery, that the promise had been in vain, that the temple was no longer. No one except the prophets can hope in times of despair: they come to the world to reveal salvation in the failures, the ruins inside the successes. To teach us faithfulness to a defeated God. That half a century of exile – from which only a "remnant" returned as prophesied by the First Isaiah – was therefore the place and the time to learn a new, more spiritual faith, to discover a new promise, to overcome the idea of a God linked to military and political success. To liberate God from our earthly disputes, and ourselves, too, from a God that's too little.

The text tells us about the vocation of the Second Isaiah. It is not a colourful and spectacular story like those of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Moses. There are no burning bushes or seraphim. It is a meagre and sober dialogue, but among the most beautiful ones of the whole Bible. Here it is: "A voice says, »Cry!« / And I said, »What shall I cry?« / All flesh is grass, / and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. / The grass withers, the flower fades / when the breath of the Lord blows on it;" (40:6-7). And the people answers: "surely the people are grass."  

Reduced to its essentials, and against the dark background of the exile, here we can see vocation in its wonderful purity. Vocation is a voice telling you: "You have to cry"! The prophetic vocational cry is not simple talking: it is more powerful, radical, it is talking "out loud", a voice that cannot remain silent and must reach everyone, one that is uncontrollable. In response to this command the Second Isaiah does not respond with an immediate "here I am." Instead he responds by a question: “What shall I cry?” As if to say: what is there to cry out, to prophesy, to preach (Luther) in this time of exile? What should I cry? That we are like the grass, trampled like the pastures during the Babylonian army's passing over them? Do I have to scream that we are ephemeral like all people, conquered and taken prisoners like everyone else? Do I have to say it aloud that you, our God whom we thought invincible, proved to be just like all the gods of other peoples, conquered and swept away by more powerful gods? Do I have to cry out that we were wrong, that the promise was false, that the covenant was weaker than a treaty of vassalage with any empire? These are the real evidence of the prophets during all exiles.

But in that same question and in the words that – borrowed from the Psalms – follow we can also see a precious dimension of the prophetic vocation in the time of great trials. From that dialogue we sense that the prophet gives voice to the deepest and truest feelings of his people, discouraged, worn out, disappointed, wanting to let go, to surrender to those who say "yours was just a dream, which has now ended" – the same evidence that we recognize in all the exiles of those who followed a voice. That unnamed ancient prophet knows this. And so, in starting his mission, and in presenting himself to his community as an exiled prophet, he tries to reach to the marrow of the soul of his people. He brings all the pain of his people exiled and struck at the heart of their faith and identity to the voice that calls him to become a prophet. He is not afraid to express the same doubts and the same discouragement (of his people - the tr.). And his vocation becomes collective, ecclesial. It reaches the people in the moral and spiritual abyss into which they had fallen. And the people answers: "surely the people are grass." Yes we are fragile, poor, crushed and humiliated. We really are. "Surely the people are grass." We are like grass." The Italian translation does not help to grasp the beauty and importance of the dialogue (and probably the same is true for the English translation – the tr.), but the original text suggests that it may have been something special in that exile. The choir has become the protagonist of the tragedy: like Oedipus, like Antigone. Like Job.

For a prophetic vocation to bring its typical and essential fruits, the prophets should not be afraid to ask questions to the voice that calls them, they should not be afraid to bring the deepest wounds of the people into their vocational dialogue, to touch them in order to heal them. Almost always, however, the prophets, even those who are real and honest, stop too soon in crossing the deep pain of their people. And so the prophecy becomes epidermal, like cosmetics, it says only small words, it cannot scream, does not save anyone. Lacking the ‘Yes’ of the people, the prophecy is not persuasive, it is not espousal, does not become flesh, hope is too easy to be credible. For the cry of the prophets to become also the cry of the people in times of trials the prophets should be capable of "descending to hell" and meeting their dead and resurrecting them. This is how the prophets console their people. No other true consolation is known by them. Nahamù nahamù ‘ammì: "Comfort, comfort my people".

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