Other angels at the same cave

Listening to Life/27 - Waiting is the ordinary condition of good life

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 24/12/2016

Notte stellata Corea ridIf we consent, God puts a little seed in us and he goes away again. From that moment God has no more to do; neither have we, except to wait. We only have not to regret the consent we gave him, the nuptial yes. It is not as easy as it seems, for the growth of the seed within us is painful. "

Simone Weil, Waiting on God (English translation by Emma Craufurd)

Waiting is the ordinary condition of good life. Every year we relive Advent, because even though we know that that child has already come, we also know that he must return. The people of Israel believed and knew that Abraham had met the Lord, who had appeared to the patriarchs and to Hagar. Moses spoke to him face to face, and all the prophets had got to know the voice, see the heavens and the angels. Yet they continued to wait for the Immanuel, that God-with-us, who had already come, and was supposed to return.

Memory and expectation are connected to each other, one gives meaning to and reinforces the other: it is the future that keeps the past alive, it is the past that says that waiting cannot be vain. If he had not already come, he would not be able to come back. And if one day he would not come back into our night, the memory of waiting would not be enough to live on, the promise would be put out. The past without the future becomes nostalgic melancholy, and the future without the past cannot write a history of salvation. The land that once saw the baby in the cave is the same land that shortly after did not see him anymore, the same earth on which we continue our journey until he comes. Without the promise of a new dawn, that holy night becomes too distant and foggy. The light should come back because the night is not over yet.

"Arise, shine, for your light has come, / and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. / For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, / and thick darkness the peoples; / but the Lord will arise upon you, / and his glory will be seen upon you." (Isaiah 60:1-2) Arise, "rise up". In the darkness, in every darkness, we can only get up if someone calls us and invites us to arise. The people, returned from exile in a Jerusalem that's in ruins, with the temple destroyed and occupied by other peoples with other gods, needs the strong voice of the prophet to be able to stand up, to rise up and rise again. But the Third Isaiah knows that we cannot rise from our ruins unless we first raise our eyes to watch and see a different and better future: "Lift up your eyes all around, and see; / they all gather together, they come to you; / your sons shall come from afar, / and your daughters shall be carried on the hip." (60:4) The power of prophecy lies in making us already see the "not yet" with the eyes of the prophets, so that we can really look and see salvation in the midst of desolation. Rise up and look, look and rise up: these are the two verbs of hope and of all life that wants to start over. And even when we should be looking and rising up for the last time, we can only do that if we are still able to see and hope: "Perhaps I'll see Mum, Dad and Silvia again, perhaps I'll see God." Faith is to keep this "perhaps" alive until the last moment, it is the mustard seed that is enough for us to get up and arise.

Hope is seeing and arising and it is rebuilding: "They shall build up the ancient ruins; / they shall raise up the former devastations; / they shall repair the ruined cities, / the devastations of many generations." (61:4) Only those who have lived in destroyed cities - by earthquakes and wars, or by spiritual types of destruction like mourning, misfortunes, long illnesses - can understand the full force of this prophetic picture. In order to rise up and start hoping again when our city and life are still a pile of rubble, we have to imagine ourselves and our fellow citizens in the act of rebuilding, see ourselves already as we work together to rebuild and restore. We can only begin to raise a damaged country and life if one day we can see, with the soul's eyes, the image of ourselves in the work of reconstruction. First we have to see it, at least dream about it, and only then can we start rebuilding. And the day that we grab the first brick, hope will have begun to create the start of salvation. Nothing says hope better than the beginning of a new work. The work of those who rebuild a house, a school or a church when we're all petrified with grief, fear and disappointment is true participation and continuation of the creative work in the world. While we collect the stones and reassemble them one by one, we keep repeating: "let there be light", whether it is life or the Adam that we are shaping with our hands from the earth.

The greatest poverty is born from the famine of promises. It is to these poor and this poverty, permeating all classes and social conditions that the prophet announces his gospel: "The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, / because the Lord has anointed me / to bring good news to the poor; / he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, / to proclaim liberty to the captives, / and the opening of the prison to those who are bound" (61:1). These are words of an extraordinary beauty and power, which the prophets keep telling us for millennia, tirelessly in the face of the persistence of poverty, slavery and pain. They do not keep silent, because they cannot remain silent: "For Zion's sake I will not keep silent, / and for Jerusalem's sake I will not be quiet, / until her righteousness goes forth as brightness, / and her salvation as a burning torch." (62:1) How nice this "cannot" of the prophets that repeats to us the profound nature of every true prophetic vocation: "On your walls, O Jerusalem, / I have set watchmen; / all the day and all the night / they shall never be silent. / You who put the Lord in remembrance, / take no rest, / and give him no rest" (62:6-7) The first Isaiah had already used the image of the watchman (in Chapter 21) in his wonderful song: "what time of the night?". There, the watchman was the image of the prophet as a man of the incessant nocturnal dialogue with passers-by. In expectation of the day, the prophet became a supportive friend of the men that pass under the lookout tower and ask "what time of the night" (i.e. how much is left of it - the tr.). Now the third Isaiah, heir and successor of the first (and second) Isaiah, reveals another dimension of the watchman-prophet here. The prophet is also the one who, by his task and destiny, must wake God up to remind him of the world's pain. He is the one who knows that he must carry out this task without taking any rest, by working day and night, al his life, and so by not "allowing a pause" to God, until the day he wakes up and remembers his promise.

The prophet is called by God to speak to the people and to the world in his name. But in the development of his vocation he gradually understands more and better that while he is talking about God to the people he must also learn to speak to God about the people. Every intermediary and every good broker knows this, and Moses is the strongest and truest image of this twofold direction of the "trade" of the prophet. But - and this is a drama of prophecy - while he speaks on behalf of God it is his voice to guide him, the prophet does not have the people's voice inside him to speak to him and guide him. And so often he remains silent, until he learns that the voice of the people is his cry of pain, and understands that in order to speak to God about the people he should just scream together with his people. The truth and the good maturation of the prophetic vocation are revealed in its fullness when one day the prophet feels that he must leave the "temple" and go down to the "square", because that's where he can learn to listen to the cry-voice of the people. It is here that the prophet becomes the suffering servant, who embodies the pain of the people and the poor, even to martyrdom, to the cross. He can no longer say the word of God to the people, he is a "silent sheep", because he has become the word of man toward God in his flesh, the incarnation of the human word to make it reach heaven. Christmas is the great celebration of the Word of God made man: the witnesses of that event could not understand what had happened in that holy night unless the cry -word of the people had become the word of God in the prophets.

But the third Isaiah tells us something else, too. The prophet is the first watchman, but he is not alone in this task. He places other watchmen beside him on the walls, so that they continue to tire God with him. They are the disciples of the prophet, and all those who continue his mission in time. They are the many men and women, from the past and the present, who continue to ask questions to God in solidarity with their own people, without getting tired, screaming together with their people. They are the many charismas, lay and religious, that have never ceased to speak to people about God and, above all, to speak to God about people, to the point of tiring him. Prophecy does not die as long as there is someone on the lookout on top of the walls of our cities shouting and giving voice to those who have lost it or never had it, and "never being silent". And while it announces salvation to us it also cries the pain of those who are not yet saved and still waiting. And it is done by vocation, like by that ancient prophet, whose disciples are still there, even if they are unaware of it.

For a long time now there have been few, too few of the prophets that still know how to speak about God's promise. But there are many, very many of those who know how to shout for the state of non-salvation of men and women. Many times they cry out to a sky they think is empty - because they have never met God, because they do not know him, do not recognize him anymore, or because they have forgotten his voice. But they continue by their vocation to cry for our pain, as they are different but real angels above the caves in our nights. They do not know, but they also fit into the nativity scene, and they become company to this night together with the shepherds, the lambs and angels and wait for the dawn, to wake her up. Merry Christmas!

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