Words for All Times

Listening to Life/29 - The prophet is the master of light because he knows the darkness of night

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 08/01/2017

Lago Albano rid"The human tide, breaking itself up at the foot of the tower constantly, soaked by its misery, continues to repeat the question: shomèr ma-millàilah? 'Watchman, what time of the night?' The oracle's tone is disconcerting for its unprecedented courtesy: 'If you like to question, come back ...'. It does not matter. What matters, what keeps us alive is that we do not lose the angelic trepidation, the need, the desire to know at which point the night is or when it will end or what night means. The worst of evils is that the coming and the asking of questions cease."

Guido Ceronetti, The Book of the Prophet Isaiah

No era has experienced a production and multiplication of words like ours. Ancient cultures that were rural and illiterate, exactly because they could neither write nor read, because they only knew a few words, sensed that the word, the words contained a mysterious power in themselves, and so they respected and feared them. They could neither read nor write but could speak. They could not write poems, but they knew how to recite them, they knew how to live them. Our time which is flooded by words has lost its sense of the word; it does not have the tools to recognize the prophets, and confuses them with the makers and sellers of small talk. To recognize and understand the prophets - and only God knows how much we need it - we should simply re-learn to speak.

The conclusion of the Book of Isaiah is as great as the whole book. The promises that are interwoven in the entire roll return and so do his consolations and his immense hope: “For behold, I create new heavens / and a new earth, / and the former things shall not be remembered / or come into mind. (...) no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping / and the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it / an infant who lives but a few days, / or an old man who does not fill out his days, / for the young man shall die a hundred years old..." (Isaiah 65:17-20) The Bible is a continuous ode to life. The earth is the place of blessing, it is here where God can be encountered, where he speaks to us. For the biblical man, and therefore the prophets, there is no greater promise than that of a long life, a time in which one will live longer. Today our lifetime has reached a hundred years, but since we don't have a culture of life we are no longer able to read a long old age as a blessing. Returning to the prophets is an essential resource for re-learning to live, to grow old and to die.

In a culture of life the blessing of work cannot be missing, nor can the vineyard: "They shall build houses and inhabit them; / they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. (...) ...and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. / They shall not labour in vain" (65:21-23). The promised land is also a land of work as a blessing, where you have to 'work hard', but not 'work in vain'. Every work is hard, but not all hard work is good. Being blessed is being able to work, being blessed is not to work in vain.

The announcement of a new harmony in creation returns: "The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; / the lion shall eat straw like the ox, / and dust shall be the serpent's food. / They shall not hurt or destroy / in all my holy mountain" (65:25). Children, the first sign of hope in time of desolation and expectation also return: "No more shall there be in it / an infant who lives but a few days" (65:20). Salvation for everyone returns - that of a single people is not enough for the prophet: "the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues" (66:18).

The Book of Isaiah passes through many centuries of the history of the people of Israel, some of them very dark and painful. The strength and beauty of these last chapters is that they repeat the ancient promises after the exile and the destruction of the temple, after the disappointment of the return from exile. The exercise of hope is important in times of joy; but it is even more important to exercise that same hope in exile and in the time of disappointment. It is the same difference as between the hope of youth and adulthood, when we are able to believe, to say, to tell about and pass on to each other the faith in a new land while we are on what was supposed to be the land of the first promise and that one day we found to be simply the land of all. Finding the same images and hopes in the Third Isaiah as in the First and Second Isaiah is a great gift for anyone who wants to continue to hope and believe in the first vocation and in the first love with the same faith of the beginning, when everything was possible. It's a great message of life that can cure the natural cynicism and disappointment that accompany any good adult life, to continue to believe in a son or daughter even when we are old, to plant seeds of new trees knowing that we will not see its leaves. It could heal our ageing, disappointed and frightened Europe and liberate her from her darkness.

When prophecy disappears from a community, a people, a civilization, from each of us, youth becomes nostalgia, ageing a curse, and the beautiful adult life never arrives. Prophecy holds the experience of youth true for the whole of life, because it turns it into an experience of the soul. The new land is not the land of yesterday. Nor is it the land of tomorrow. It is simply our land, the only one we have here and now: "For as the new heavens and the new earth / that I make / shall remain before me, says the Lord, / so shall your offspring and your name remain." (66:22) Only the present can last forever. The Bible and the prophets keep telling us that the greatest sin is to give up living, enchanted by the past or deceived by the future. All of heaven and all the earth are concentrated in this present of ours that is poor but inhabited, deep, infinite. This is the 'eternal life' that the Biblical prophecy hands over to us.

We have arrived to the last part of this commentary on the Book of Isaiah, listening to (the) life that Isaiah revealed to us, that he made us see inside and around us. Every time I got to the end of the commentary written on a book of the Bible - Genesis, Exodus, Job, Ecclesiastes and now Isaiah - upon closing the last page, I felt really sad thinking of the following Sunday without the company of the characters of that book, who episode after episode had turned into living characters of my soul. Even now it seems impossible to me that from next week I will not be by the side of Isaiah, to read him, to read his commentators, to be taught and nurtured by his wisdom. These six months with Isaiah have been wonderful. All of our discoveries from the first to the last chapter have been ever so beautiful, and they often left me breathless.

I conclude with a final 'surprise', which came upon me during the feast of Epiphany.

Isaiah is the prophet of light and darkness together. Few pages of the Bible are as bright and shiny as the 'great light' announced by Isaiah. Few pages of the Bible or all literature are darker than some verses of Isaiah. The Song of the Watchman, the Shomèr ma-millàilah, perhaps the most beautiful song of all, is a night-time conversation, and it's a wonderful song of light. Just like in life, where darkness and light are interwoven with each other, and maybe one day we will understand that they are one and the same thing. We keep looking for the light throughout our life, especially if one day we saw it in all its brightness when we were called by it. On another day, then, we realize that the darkness that had meanwhile arrived and had darkened that first sun was not the negation of light: it was just another, different light, less shiny but more real. Isaiah is master of light because he is a true connoisseur of the night. The watchman, among the many images that the Book of Isaiah has given us to describe the prophetic vocation, is the one that best tells about the intimate nature and the secret of the life of the prophets: they are the heralds of dawn in dialogue with the passers-by, in the night. They are in the same night at night, but - by vocation - they are certain of the dawn. They do not know when it will arrive, they only know that it will come, and they tell us, they shout it out to us. When there are no prophets, we live in a great famine of the announcement of the dawn. And the night with no hope of Aurora is an endless night.

Contrasting the dark to light is typical of childhood. Seen by children, the one is the enemy of the other. The light is good, beautiful and joyful; the dark is ugly, scary and bad. Then we grow up and learn the values of the night, we live, work and we love each other day and night. We understand that the night is also the time of dreaming, and we learn to dream in daylight, too. But while in the natural and social life we all know that you cannot live without the alternation of night and day, without discovering the light in the darkness and the darkness in the light, in our spiritual life we tend to remain in the phase of childhood for too long. We continue, sometimes for life, to love light and hate darkness, not knowing the work, love and the dreams of the night. And so we do not ever become adults but are trapped between the memory of the light of yesterday and the desire for that tomorrow, losing the only good light given to us: that bright and dark one of the present.

I would never have written these things before starting to study and comment on Isaiah. I had never said this, because I had not known it all. Just as I had not known almost any of the words with which I have commented on Isaiah and the other biblical books. The most outstanding feature of Bible prophecy is its generativity: reading it and studying it has generated a new understanding of the present, of history, society, the economy, religions and life - that of others and our own. The Bible is a great common good, a free gift just waiting to be 'seen'.

And so the last word today, too, can only be: thank you. To the immense Isaiah, to his God who is the God of all. To Avvenire that in the person of its director Marco Tarquinio continues to give me the confidence to be able to generate new and free words. To the readers who have accompanied me, written many beautiful letters, encouraged and corrected me. To many biblical scholars, poets, writers and artists who have given me ideas.

After a week off, on 22 January I will take up my Sunday 'page' again, with a new series of reflections. For now I will lay aside the work on the Bible, but, if I have the strength, I intend to resume it after a few months. To continue searching for new words. To continue learning to speak. To continue the dialogue, in the night, in the light of day.

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