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The penultimate prayer

The sign and the flesh/10 - The beatitude of the sterile womb is weeping over the breaking of the covenant with God.

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire  06/02/2022

"You who hide inside all names.
If you were.
If you were a mother...
If you consoled
Like the dog licking her aching new born.
If you. If you gave birth...
If you held. If you protected. If you held tightly to your chest. If you came to him...
Do come. Do not be afraid of him. He forgives you. Yes, he forgives you
".

Mariangela Gualtieri, Prayer of the Winged One (Preghiera dell’Alato).

Hosea reminds us that the most painful persecution levelled against the prophets (who are always uncomfortable troublemakers) takes the form of sarcasm and discrediting, denying the profound nature of their vocation.

Prophecies of opposite signs do not cancel each other out. The true hope that emanates from some of the pages by a prophet does not console the despair found in his other passages, because if that were the case, the Bible would just be a collection of words too small to enable it to call us by name. Each verse by a prophet is a direct account of a living word because it is mixed with the earth of history, mixed with the noises of our life, which shine thanks to the dark background of our errors. Thus, when that word one day reaches us - "there is a moment for" every word in the Bible... - we recognize it as a living thing, and those ancient verses begin to speak our language. They touch us; they heal us, and sometimes the miracle, that those words become the words we could not find to say the unspeakable about our deaths and resurrections, happens. It happens, sometimes, it has to happen at least once. However, this extraordinary capacity of the biblical word, of which poetry and art are its sisters, can only be activated if we enable the word to be free, free and a vivid image of that real moment in the life of those who generated it.

Good Friday will not really speak to us if, while experiencing it, if we are already thinking about the first day that comes after Saturday. And we will not hold our gaze on that excessive pain and turn towards the empty tomb, we will not be able to rise again and we will not help to resurrect the many who are still hanging on their crosses. Golgotha ​​is not the antechamber of the empty tomb. Golgotha ​​is forever, hence the crucified can pray with the words of the Bible while they still find themselves on the cross, still not knowing if or when they will be resurrected. This is how the desperate can find their desperate psalm, which they can recite, while the newlyweds, in a different place, sing the Canticle. If we could take a snapshot of the soul of the world, we would find thousands and thousands of people all in tune with the verses of the Bible simultaneously, each tuned into its unique verse. Some can be found in the threshing floor in the company of the love dialogues between Ruth and Boaz, while others find themselves in the idolatrous threshing floor of Hosea in the company of betrayal.

Biblical truth will open up if we are able to safeguard his infinite symphony: «Do not rejoice, Israel... For you have been unfaithful to your God; you love the wages of a prostitute at every threshing floor» (Hosea 9,1-2). We find ourselves inside a festival of Israel, a harvest festival, perhaps its main religious festival (the "feast of huts"). It is likely that these verses are a faithful echo of Hosea's oral preaching, when in the midst of this great feast he takes the floor in a harangue of accusations against the people who have turned a feast of YHWH into an orgy to honour the gods of fertility. Hosea shouts his condemnation in the midst of that climate of euphoria, becoming the party pooper: «They will not remain in the Lord’s land; Ephraim will return to Egypt» (Hosea 9,3). The punishment is the greatest of them all: the revocation of the covenant, the cancellation of the promise. The return to Egypt, the land of slavery, before the great liberation. A radical and definitive condemnation, without any hope. These are the hardest moments for the prophets. When, while loving their people, they must become merely a pencil in the fingers of God writing words of death. This is terrible suffering, typical of the prophets: to declare the end of the covenant and therefore the death of God, conscious of dying together with the death they are announcing - the prophets are the rope that binds heaven and earth: and they live on as long as this rope holds .

But how can idolatry generate the rescission of the Covenant, the act that is the foundation of the entire Bible? Well, when you take a statue of a calf and call it "YHWH" the covenant has already been broken. The prophet can only take note of the divorce that has already become practice (reality is greater than the idea in this as well). Revoking the pact means putting the spotlight on the evidence. Covenants, alliances, are goods of reciprocity that live on as long as there is a relationship that is co-created and co-enjoyed by both parties. If either one fails, the covenant dies as such - it may survive as forgiveness or mercy, but not as a reciprocal good.

There are phases in the life of a prophet when loyalty to the voice calls him to reveal the evidence, but as his community does not have the same perception of the evidence as he does, the revelation ends up turning into aversion and then persecution by his own people. Israel was not fully aware of its own idolatry. In religious (and secular) communities, the transformation of ideals into idolatry is a slow process and almost never carried out in bad faith. We often find ourselves within an idolatrous cult - the most common one being the transformation of a person or a charism (or both) into an idol - without anyone actually having sought it out or desired it, and above all fully convinced that we are still following the same ideal as always. This is why it is practically impossible for people who have become idolaters to listen to the prophets, because what is evident to the prophets is only perceived as an unjust accusation to the people, an unfair sentence for an undeserved crime. This is one of the main explanations behind the crises and death of a community, which almost always self-implode and become extinguished in good faith, because they will not listen to the honest prophets and instead turn to false ones.

Hence, the continuation of the chapter should not surprise us too much: «The prophet is considered a fool, the inspired person a maniac» (Hosea 9,7). As had happened before with Elisha and would happen with Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the time, not only of physical persecution («yet snares await him on all his paths» Hosea 9,8) but of derision, would come for Hosea as well. True prophets are not that afraid of persecution and physical suffering, they know that it is part of their mission; sarcasm, however, is much more painful, to be considered bizarre freak characters. An experience of being discredited, of losing credit-trust. Suffering and persecutions are bearable if and as long as the prophet is being persecuted as a prophet; but they become (almost) impossible to bear when he is discredited as being a fool. Due to their typical intelligence, which sometimes also takes the form of the evil intelligence of a snake, people know very well how to make a true prophet suffer: there is no need to imprison him or subject him to beatings, just tell him: "you are a clown". There is no more effective way to neutralize a party pooper than to turn him into a court jester. From the structure of the sentence it seems that Hosea is reporting rumours that were circulating in the country, because the perfect way of ridiculing a prophet is the kind that takes place behind his back, usually fuelled by the main enemies of a true prophet: false prophets.

In the second part of the chapter, the image of the desert, so dear to the prophet, returns once again: «When I found Israel, it was like finding grapes in the desert; when I saw your ancestors... But when they came to Baal Peor, they consecrated themselves to that shameful idol and became as vile as the thing they loved» Hosea (9,10). This passage offers clues for a possible different source used by Hosea regarding the history of the Covenant: it seems that to Hosea the desert (not Egypt) was the site of the Covenant between YHWH and his people. Furthermore, he does not seem to hold the view that ancient times were a golden age of fidelity (the patriarchs, Moses, David), as opposed to the current tide of infidelity. For Hosea, corruption and idolatry were already part of the early days of young Israel (this is what the reference to Baal-Peor narrated in the book of Numbers (25) means, when the Israelites adhered to the worship of the god Baal, while still in exile). This is an important interpretation, because it challenges the idea, still rooted in much religious and ideal life, that the past of a collective experience contains a greater charismatic purity than the present. Hosea tells us instead that the tendency to corruption is intrinsic, that the weed immediately grows together with the good wheat. Hence, in the face of a crisis, one must not be so naïve as to think that a generic and indiscriminate "return to the radicalism of early days" will be sufficient. Because if one does not determine where the "good part" of the experience lies, it is very probable that the wrong things end up being actualized, while the errors also receive a sacred chrism from the noble tradition.

The chapter ends on a desperate note, one last cluster of withered grapes (Isaiah 65,8) which, however, also contains a blessing: «Ephraim’s glory will fly away like a bird - no birth, no pregnancy, no conception. Even if they rear children, I will bereave them of every one… Even if they bear children, I will slay their cherished offspring» (Hosea 9,11-16). Mothers, wombs, pregnancies, and children: these are the symbols that spoke of well-being in ancient civilizations (the Latin word felicitas contains the same root as fetus and femina). The prophet's judgment reaches the very centre of life, transmitted from generation to generation. If the pact should be withdrawn, if the covenant should be broken, then it is good thing that children are no longer born because they would only be born into a wasteland, in an arid world under an empty sky. In biblical humanism, when God withdraws, life as a whole is lost with him: «Blessed are the childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!» (Luke 23,29).

These beatitudes, the beatitudes of the withered womb, can only be sung by the great prophets, who weep for us while singing them. Furthermore, if we read carefully between the lines of our communities, if we read the hearts of those who live next to us, we would realize that these words by Hosea are still very much alive. We would feel that beatitude or bliss in Mark, who as a young man followed a star and left full of promise, and then as an adult or old man found himself in a community that, it seemed to him, had betrayed that promise. The day may come for him when, out of a paradoxical fidelity to himself, he comes to hope and pray that no more new vocations will arrive in his community, because he is certain that those young people of today will one day come to live the same experience of disappointment and betrayal that he was experiencing. And he will finally understand Hosea, he will finally understand that the Bible was written for him as well, to, on that terrible day, put words to his strange prayer that is scaring him - the words of the Bible are learned one at a time. And perhaps, on a different day, he will understand that that desperate prayer was not the last prayer of his life: it was merely the penultimate.

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