The greatest reciprocity

The Dawn of Midnight/19 - Together, in the pact-communion that can change history

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 27/08/2017

170827 Geremia 19 rid

Later I discovered and am still discovering up to this very moment that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to believe. One must abandon every attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, a converted sinner, a churchman (the priestly type, so-called!) a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one. This is what I mean by worldliness (...)”

D. BonhoefferLetter written on 21 July 1944 (English translation by Reginald H. Fuller)

Perhaps there is no greater gift than the gift of hope. It is a primary good. We can be satiated with merchandise and all kinds of comfort goods, but we still die in despair. The promised land seems unattainable at all times, but above all when we cross deserts, then the exile seems endless. Those who give us true and not vain hope first look our despair into the eyes, cross through it, make it their own. They fight false hopes, undergo all the consequences and wounds of the struggle. They resist that dimension of human pietas that brings so many to succumb to the temptation to offer false consolations - to themselves and to others. From the middle of the night the prophets announce to us a true dawn we still cannot see, only through their eyes. Just like when everything around us has been talking only of death and vanitas for a long time, but one day there comes a friend and talks about heaven to us. And, this time, finally, everything seems true, beyond the artificial paradises that kept deceiving us in the age of illusion. And it is, finally, all grace, all charis, all gratuitousness: “For I will restore health to you, / and your wounds I will heal” (Jeremiah 30:17).

We have reached the chapters known as Jeremiah's Book of Consolation, a diptych that contains wonderful verses, some of the greatest of Jeremiah and the Bible. But in order to understand them, we must keep a close eye on and focus our soul around all of the first part of his book, his disappointments, his true and hard words of misfortune. We must see Jeremiah betrayed again by his relatives from Anathoth, then with the yoke on his neck, with the pitcher in his hand, chained in the prison of the temple. And getting to the banks of the Jordan only after these forty years of desert. Without the background of the preceding chapters, these songs of hope and consolation lose all their strength, they do not move us, they do not penetrate into our flesh, they do not make us exult and they do not become a completely different kind of prayer: “the Lord appeared to him from far away. / I have loved you with an everlasting love; / therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. / Again I will build you, and you shall be built, / O virgin Israel! Again you shall adorn yourself with tambourines / and shall go forth in the dance of the merrymakers” (31:3-4).

The announcement of this new joy does not arise from the oblivion of the times of pain and anguish. Those days are always present and very much alive, because it is the truth of the pain of yesterday that makes the hope of today true and not vain: “A voice is heard in Ramah, / lamentation and bitter weeping. / Rachel is weeping for her children; / she refuses to be comforted for her children, / because they are no more” (31:15). The inconsolable cry of Rachel, the beloved wife of Jacob-Israel, makes the consolation of Jeremiah truer and more beautiful, because it brings him closer to the real life of everyone: “There is hope for your future, (...) / and your children shall come back to their own country (31:17).

Rachel's tears and Jeremiah's consolation are side by side in the same song. Because the announcement of the arrival or return of a child does not erase the pain for the lost child and the real and immense types of pain are not the enemies of joy but can become its closest friends. Jeremiah's consolation is truer because he does not forget Rachel's cry for the children who are lost forever. He looks at it, loves it, assumes it and makes it flourish in hope. However it happens just too many times that, dazzled by the Easter light, we can no longer see the many who continue to be crucified, we no longer see Rachel crying without consolation. And we believe that there are no more poor people because we simply do not see them anymore, as we are well-sheltered in the comfort of our homes and in the temples of those who, forgetting the crucifixes forget the resurrection, too, or confuse it all with the spectacular ghosts generated by false prophets.

“Set up road markers for yourself; / make yourself guideposts; / consider well the highway, / the road by which you went. / Return, O virgin Israel, / return to these your cities” (31:21). The way to return home is, almost always, the same road that led us to exile. The road to slavery and freedom are the same: only the direction is opposite. It’s enough just to reverse the way, give it an opposite meaning. There are many people who never return home again and are lost in alternate winding paths because the memory of the pain of the journey to exile impedes their understanding of the new freedom being at the end of the path of slavery, which is in the opposite direction. The way to exit a big crisis is simply by changing the direction of the same road that generated it. We can return to the lost faith by walking the same path we did when losing it, but in the opposite direction. We return home by re-walking the road that took us away, and only to find out on the way that those signs that guided us in our escape had other letters and other numbers on their back side, but we could not see them until we turned back, walking backwards: “How long will you waver, / O faithless daughter?” (31:22)

This verse closes with an unexpected and wonderful conclusion, which continues to create problems for the exegetes: “For the Lord has created a new thing on the earth: / a woman encircles a man” (31:22). It’s a mysterious and beautiful phrase, like many things in life are beautiful just because they are incomplete, open, ambivalent, alive. Therefore, it is from this ambiguous opening that we can glimpse Jeremiah, who, under a special creative inspiration, returns in his thought to the days of Creation, the first breath of the spirit, to light and darkness, to Adam, to the woman, their disobedience that generated those tremendous words of Elohim: “To the woman he said, / »I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; / in pain you shall bring forth children. / Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, / but he shall rule over you«” (Genesis 3:16). The prophets have always suffered and continue to suffer when they read this sentence because they have seen it being realised in families, politics, businesses, religions; they saw it yesterday, we continue to see it today, too many times still. Perhaps, in giving us his hope at the end of the night, Jeremiah wanted to include a promise of a new and different relationship between man and woman, which he could not see, and we cannot fully see it yet, either. Every full human hope is also hope of reciprocity and communion, of the meeting of gazes, coming from different yet equal pairs of eyes.

We were just acclimated to this new and beautiful hope, and while the chapter is approaching its sunset it gives us its most beautiful colours. At the end of the vision of the promise of returning home, Jeremiah touches his prophetic-poetic peak, and the promise of salvation flourishes in the rightly-famous verses about the New Covenant. Let us read how Jeremiah has given it to us, without missing even a comma, letting ourselves be wounded here and now: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (31:31-33).

Every great and true hope of liberation is also a promise of a new alliance. When the first pact was betrayed, wounded and defamed, the promise of a homecoming must necessarily become a promise of a new covenant. These are the decisive moments when the memory and the renewal of the first pact is no longer enough: there is a need to dream of a different future together. When we left the house and did not come back, when we saw the other who did so, for the hope in a future together it is not enough to remember the days of the first love, or to open the wedding album. What’s necessary is simply to see ourselves at another altar tomorrow, as we say other words, with new witnesses, with a new kind of love. Or when the first pact that brought us into this community has become mute, the first prayers a child’s play, the first love story a deception, we cannot get saved without the promise of a new alliance, unless one day a prophet announces another covenant, other prayers, another life. Life does not come to full maturity if it does not join into a new covenant from the first moment, even if it is the one with the angel of death that makes its announcement to us as it embraces us. When we enter the time of the new covenant, what is external becomes internal, the Law becomes flesh and we begin to really obey the best part of us.

But Jeremiah tells us something even more specific, too. This new and decisive phase of people and communities is not an individual and/or solitary achievement. It is a covenant, a pact, communion. In the new covenant we can only enter together, though, once inside, it is the freedom and love of everyone that reaches a new phase. The fruits are personal, but the conquest is collective. Everyone finds themselves inside the law that they used to know from outside, but we are not the writers of this new law. We find that it is written by a hand that is not ours. And the greatest reciprocity and the greatest freedom possible under the sun are born.

But while we were in exile we could not know about it. We had to start on the way back, recognize it as the same one that had led us to slavery and continue walking. And, in the sunset, we had to meet a prophet who announced the new covenant. We believed him, and we continued to walk. We have become new creation, the true hope of the future has saved the true pain of the past. And then we understood, or at least sensed, that this new alliance was not the last one. Once again we felt alive, and we started walking again.

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