The Dawn of Midnight/11 - The landscape of the land found is not that of the promised land
by Luigino Bruni
published in Avvenire on 02/07/2017
“No-one who reads the Bible can avoid the impression that Jeremiah's coming is as if a dam had given way at a decisive point. You feel something new, a dimension of pain so far unknown.”
Gerhard Von Rad, Old Testament Theology
“The word of the Lord came to me: »You shall not take a wife, nor shall you have sons or daughters in this place.«” (Jeremiah 16:1) Here is another narrative and spiritual turning point in Jeremiah's song and life, which is gorgeous and tremendous. By vocation Jeremiah will have no wife, and he will have neither sons nor daughters. The double command marks and strengthens Jeremiah’s two radical solitudes: he must live without a wife and without sons and daughters (the joy, the splendour and the pains that girls and daughters give us are not substitutes for those of boys and sons, and vice versa). In this procession - wife, sons and daughters - we can perhaps read a concrete, non-generic look taken at those different though equally concrete joys that he will not know because of a special vocation.
Other biblical prophets have also had similar experiences to those of Jeremiah. The lives of Isaiah and Hosea have been total, global signs, words made flesh-symbol. Their vocations also deeply involved their family.
Isaiah calls his son "a remnant will return", and the heart of his prophecy becomes his son's name. Hosea receives the command from God to marry a prostitute, and that, too, so as to say - to be a message to the people: you have been prostituted to other gods. These are tremendous things and actions when the pain and sorrow become too great and mere words, even the immense ones of the prophets, are not enough anymore.
In Jeremiah’s case, however, the voice asks for something even more radical: to be a sign and an omen by completely renouncing the most blessed and sacred things. In his world, the choice of not marrying and not having children was a scandalous act and, above all, it didn’t make any sense. In Hebrew there is no word to say "celibacy". It was just a folly, a stupid, ridiculous thing. So much so that this request to Jeremiah has no parallel in the Old Testament.
To grasp something about the paradox of that command, it takes the whole Bible and the experience of a lifetime. We must return to Abraham, the promise made to him of having as many children as the stars of heaven. To Sarah's infertility, to Hagar and Ishmael, and then to Isaac, Rachel and Leah, to Job, to the Covenant, to the Canticle, and to the bridal language in the Bible, much loved and also used by Jeremiah. In that world, the primary blessing is the blessing of having sons and daughters, no land is the promised land unless there is at least one of our children living and nourishing off of its milk and honey. In biblical humanism, the only desired paradise is to be able to continue living in our children and in their memory for many generations. The other, better life in which we hope is not our own in heaven but that of our children on earth. And then we should return to the first chapters of Genesis. To that adam created "male and female", who, together, can really show the image of God in the only way allowed on earth, which is so beautiful that all the others disfigure the image of Elohim because they disfigure the image of the adam. When, awakening from his numbness, that first man’s gaze crossed the eyes that were like his own for the first time, and perhaps tuned the first song of the earth: "This at last..." I finally found an ezer kenegdò: eyes in my eyes, eyes like mine and yet all different. The woman comes as a gift and answer to one of the first phrases of Biblical Anthropology: "It is not good that the man should be alone."
So in this great chapter of the Book of Jeremiah and his story, God asks him to return to the sad solitude of the world's aurora before the "two or more". Jeremiah must, because of a word of YHWH, deny and contradict one of his most beautiful and eternal words. That "it is not good" applies to every human, but not to Jeremiah.
And the amazement does not end here: “For thus says the Lord: »Do not enter the house of mourning, or go to lament or grieve for them«” (16:5) Participating at funerals, crying, visiting the family of the deceased one during the long mourning period were primary social practices that created and strengthened social ties, increased solidarity and fraternity. Failing to perform these practices meant isolating oneself and being seen by others as bizarre and inimical. But Jeremiah's list of prohibitions is still not complete: “You shall not go into the house of feasting to sit with them, to eat and drink” (16:8). So God wants a life in total solitude for him: without a family, without children, without friends, without celebrations, without a community, without consolation. Why? The text provides us with an interpretation: Jeremiah has to anticipate with his body, with his social relations and his flesh the condition that will soon be of all the people who are about to be deported, entering a phase where banquets will end, where not only the dead cannot be properly buried but no mourning rites can be performed either. He has to become a symbol incarnated.
But this explanation is not enough. What sense has it to embody a total ruin, anticipating with one’s own life the misery that will be the share of all the people? And what good is it to be a sign if no one understands it, but everybody just laughs at it and ridicules it? Let us not forget that the overall message of the Book of Jeremiah does not suggest that the purpose of strong signs is the conversion of the people. Neither can it suffice to think that the purpose of the Book of Jeremiah might be an ex-post theological reading of the disastrous events of the deportation to Babylon, which, to save the righteousness of God, attributes all the blame of misfortune to the corruption and idolatry of the people. It's all too little, too simple, not up to the grandness of his book.
It is then worthwhile for us to let Chapter 16 talk and enter our lives today, and to enter into dialogue with Jeremiah, making ourselves his contemporaries. And if we face this chapter naked and free, we may perhaps see some of the paradoxical - but real and essential - dimensions of the mist that we find in many lives lived as a vocation.
The day Jeremiah received his first call he did not know that this second call would also come (in the narrative of his vocation in the first chapter there is no hint of not marrying). Today, however, when someone responds to a religious vocation, they know right away that they will not marry or have any sons or daughters. But even today, on the day of the call, wrapped up by the dazzling light of the voice, even though we are able to give up of a wife/husband, sons and daughters in the abstract sense, we are actually not giving up anything real yet - though many vocations are obstructed because, out of fear, they stop at that first abstract renunciation, and they do not know the generativity that only concrete renunciation can obtain. But when life works, it is very likely that the day of Jeremiah’s Chapter 16 comes when that abstract idea becomes concrete and incarnate. It comes when you get to know a concrete man who could really become a husband, when one day, looking at a child you feel the so far absent urge for fatherhood in the flesh, even though you are surrounded by a hundred sons and daughters, but yours are not there among them though they could be. It is at that point, not on the day of the first bright enchantment ten or thirty years ago, that the word reaches to us clear and strong: "You will not marry, you will not have sons or daughters." And you can answer it again and differently: yes.
If we truly follow a vocation and do not give up life for a disappointment or illusion, sooner or later we will inevitably reach the milestone of Chapter 16. We become like Jeremiah, but we do not notice it, because the process is slow and long. We find ourselves incarnating messages we are not masters of. We can rebel, or say "yes," and lend our body and life to write a chapter of a book, albeit not knowing either its plot or its ending. In his world and in his time, Jeremiah could not understand the sense of the terrible things that the voice asked of him. The Book of Jeremiah gives us some interpretation, but Jeremiah the man from Anathoth had probably much less interpretations of the final edition of his book, perhaps he did not have any. He only heard, very clearly, a voice that asked him something paradoxical, and he said: "all right". Symbols do not perform their job because they know their own meaning: sometimes they have some gleam of a meaning, but the symbol is almost never a good interpreter of itself. The great symbols of the Bible and the life of each and every one are never explained and revealed once and for all, and therefore they continue to speak and interpret themselves in time and at all times. We are not, in our world and in our time, the best interpreters of the symbols we are called to become.
The Bible is also revelation because sometimes it takes away the veil that separates us from the sense of its words and from that of our most important experiences. It takes it away for a while and then puts it back, re-veiling them, to guard the intimacy of the great stories of love and pain, and to guard the mystery of our heart. It is not necessary to know and explain all the meaning and all the senses of the paradoxical commands of Chapter 16, because those words will continue to sing as long as their meanings are greater and more numerous than our questions and answers can be. The Bible can regenerate as long as its meanings are beyond our own interpretations.
The landscape of the land found is not that of the promised land. So many things that we thought were there are actually not - there is no community we imagined but only what we have, there is no happiness we were looking for, because throughout life we realized it is too little. But we have found many surprises, such as the gift of discovering the beauty where everyone sees bad things and people, a deep and sober fraternity with the earth, with animals, with plants, blossoming like a flower in a non-chosen but humbly accepted solitude. A vocation is alive as long as it remains free enough to constantly revise the image of the first promised land. And when it realizes that the disappearance of the last surviving element of the dreamed landscape is near, it is capable of singing the song of great blessing.
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