The Dawn of Midnight/1 - Destiny and freedom in the encounter with the absolute

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on  23/04/2017

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Hear, you that love, 
You that yearn, 
You bereaved:
In your eyes’ desire our life begins, 
In your hands our breakthrough, to the blue air – 
We’re there in the smell of the dawn.
Already you’re breathing us in, 
We enter your sleep, 
Strike root in the dream-soil. 
Funereal night 
Then nurtures our growth, till 
Our eyes open to yours. 
And we cry
.

Nelly Sachs In the Dwellings of Death (Chorus of the Unborn - English translation by Andrew Shanks)

Prophecy is one of the capital goods at all times and everywhere - for every society, for all communities, for every person. Therefore, when the big crises strike, prophecy becomes a primary necessity, precious and essential, just like water or respect.

In the crises with an uncertain outcome, those who were waiting for us in the crucial areas of existence, to go wrong means to go astray, to get lost, never go home again. Our time, which is accumulating an impressive amount of crises of which many are decisive, has an endless need for prophecy, because we have an endless need to relearn to talk, to talk to each other, to tell the great stories, and therefore to relearn to listen, to listen to each other, to love the silence which is the origin of every word that's not vain. The prophets, along with the poets, are the experts of the word, the guardians of its power and mystery - they are its midwives. Without a new-ancient culture of the word and the words, which is always cultivated in the personal and collective spirit, we will be more and more the victims of words we cannot control anymore. One cannot live, one cannot be righteous without prophecy. We can have a thousand "priests" and "kings", but if we do not have at least one prophet, the poor remain poor forever, communities become consumer clubs of comfort goods, spirituality becomes a quest for feelings, faiths are transformed in neurosis.

Throughout the history of the peoples, prophecy has taken many forms. The one it took in Israel was, however, different, special and unique. The quality of biblical prophecy, its strength, its duration, its immense beauty, the care and the faithfulness with which it has been transmitted over the millennia make it a universal patrimony, a summit of the spiritual genius of humanity. A great gift for everyone. A gift that unfortunately has always reached very few people, and keeps reaching less and less. Because it is labelled as a religious thing, and so it is perceived as useless by those who do not have a religious culture. Because too many Christians think that the Gospel already contains everything we "need" from the Bible. Because non-false prophecy is not an adulator, it does not caress our certainties and comfort, it does not respond to the tastes of consumers. And because to understand and love those other words, we would need other times, other rhythms, a life that's different from our distracted, fragmented and fast living.

Jeremiah represents a meeting that can change our life. Because it is the encounter with an absolute - like Job, Ecclesiastes, Saint Paul or Leopardi. And it's always very rare in life to meet someone or something that brings one or more dimensions of the absolute, and therefore of something new, unknown, original.

There are many words of YHWH in the Book of Jeremiah, but there are also many words of Jeremiah himself. His book reveals to us Jeremiah the man, with his doubts, his crises and questions. Like Hosea, more than Isaiah.

Jeremiah begins his book with the story of his vocation. The most universal and eternal of the many revelations contained in his prophecy is perhaps the revelation of the profound nature of a vocation. For Jeremiah, too, in the beginning (bereshit) of his prophetic life there is a meeting with a voice: "Now the word of the Lord came to me, saying, »Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, / and before you were born I consecrated you; / I appointed you a prophet to the nations.« Then I said, »Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.« (...) Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth. And the Lord said to me, »Behold, I have put my words in your mouth. See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, / to pluck up and to break down, / to destroy and to overthrow, / to build and to plant.«” (Jeremiah 1:4-10)

In 627 BC, when he probably received his vocation, Jeremiah was about twenty years old. His prophetic experience develops over forty years (until 587, the year of the great deportation to Babylon, and perhaps even beyond that time). He was born in the village of Anathoth, near Jerusalem, but in the "territory of Benjamin" (1.1), which means in a northern tribe, in Israel, in a priestly family. These geographic and family data already say much about Jeremiah's life and destiny. Unlike Isaiah, his world is not Jerusalem, his traditions are those of the patriarchs, the Exodus, Moses, Canaan, and hence his spiritual horizon is that of the Covenant. His father Hilkiah is the heir of Abiathar, priest of the temple of Shiloh, a temple destroyed and cursed (1 Samuel, 12-36) whom Solomon had exiled to that land (1 Kings 2:27). Jeremiah's destiny is already written in his self-introduction: a foreigner, discarded, cursed.

In that hesitation in the face of the call ("I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth"), there is the vocation of Moses and his resistance ("I cannot speak"), but there is much more. Jeremiah discovers his vocation as a young man, perhaps he was still a boy. But when he writes (or tells) about it he is already a grown man, in the fullness of prophetic agony. These words are a memory of that first decisive day, but above all the interpretation of his task and destiny.

Living the vocation and understanding it are two very different things. When you meet the voice, you find yourself in a global and most luminous event: you hear, you see (“Jeremiah, what do you see?”: 1:11), you are touched in your body ("in your mouth"). You set out, you go, you live. But to understand what happened in that event requires the entire existence, and it is usually not enough. There are, however, moments, facts, and crises in which the meaning (sense-direction-destiny) of this youthful encounter is understood and re-interpreted. These successive interpretations of vocation are sometimes consistent and the one that comes later develops and explains the previous one. At other times, the second one changes and corrects the first, the third overrides the second and the coherence of the history of the interpretations is lost; but not the coherence of the interpretation of the story itself, which remains (or can remain) the development of that first vocation.

Jeremiah is a great teaching on every authentic human vocation. A voice calling to an inevitable destiny to which he freely responds, knowing that there is no other possible answer. It's a freedom and it's a destiny. Only the prophets, and especially Jeremiah, know and recognize this mysterious and paradoxical dimension of life lived as an intimate calling: maximum freedom and maximum obedience, the awareness that one is living the only possible life and not being able to choose another, a better one. We will see that this choice/non-choice, this freedom/obligation, this liberation/bond is the secret heart of Jeremiah's vocation, and perhaps of every vocation. One meets a voice, one answers because one cannot fail to answer, because that external voice is also the most intimate one. In that answer there is one's destiny simply, meant in the most beautiful and true sense: our place in the world ("Before I formed you in the womb I knew you...").

Jeremiah could not know all this in the year 627, he understood it as he was becoming an adult, at least he sensed it. In the blessed day of the call, we can only recognize that the voice from outside calling us was already inside us. But the painful mystery and the glowing pain of every vocation unfolds when that voice becomes our flesh. Each vocation is the incarnation of a word accepted in the ignorance of generous youth. The "not knowing" of where and how we will end up is the beauty and the drama of that first encounter.

What Jeremiah writes as an adult is therefore not the story of what happened on the day of his vocation, "in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign" (1: 2). It is the understanding of his destiny. Throughout his life, Jeremiah was "demolishing and building up," he was afraid of the violent reactions his words produced: "And I, behold, I make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls, against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests, and the people of the land. They will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, declares the Lord, to deliver you." (1:18-19) And there, in the middle of the battle, he begins to understand that first, long-past epiphany. And he tells it to us, so that we are not afraid of our battles, here and now.

Jeremiah lives, works and writes during the greatest crisis of the people of Israel, which will culminate with the siege of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple and the deportation to Babylon. He lives in a small kingdom crushed by great superpowers. By vocation, he must oppose its leaders and priests who continue to deceive themselves thinking they are able to resist the empires that are threatening them in that epochal crisis. Jeremiah understands, by vocation, that a world is ending. He says it, he cries, but the people does not want to listen to him and persecutes him. Jeremiah is the prophet of the time of the night, but with a sun inside him that allows him to see a dawn that's different from what the - deceived - people would like to see. And he announces it, he sings it. Until the end. To all, but first of all to the kings and high priests, without fear.

In his faithful and painful cry, Jeremiah is the companion of Job, of the "suffering servant" of Christ, of the various nights and dawns of the prophets of all times, of whom he cannot help being a friend: "Jeremiah, however, crosses the threshold of midnight. The Light is there in his Book, and so is Joy. But it is among the dry bones and cliff tops that he has to be glimpsed appearing suddenly, shining and singing"(André Neher, Jeremiah).

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