The sign and the flesh/16 - They are worth more than things and make us look like God
By Luigino Bruni
Published in Avvenire le 20/03/2022
"We are evidently living in a period of transition; but transition towards what? Nobody has the slightest idea. If we want to make it through this Dark Age, we should refrain, like Sophocles' Ajax, from warming ourselves in front of the fire of our illusory hopes."
Simone Weil, Oppression and liberty
This commentary on the Book of Hosea ends with praise to the whisper of the lips and a reflection on the promised time (and land) and the essential role of the disciples of a prophet. There is only one last thank you to be said.
One of the most powerful and constant messages of the Book of Hosea concerns the illusion that salvation is found in the past. He has been repeating to us that the corruption and infidelity of Israel had already begun in its earliest times, those of the Patriarchs and of Moses. Salvation therefore does not lie behind us; it is in front of us, beyond the horizon line.
The future is what saves the present, as it is a place of real and concrete possibility of change, the only time where we can become what we are yet to be and what we have never been. And every time we look for a way out of sad and dark situations in the past, in an imagined and idealized golden age where we can return to rediscover radicalism, values and purity, we are just investing our few remaining sources of energy in the wrong place. This is true for communities, as well as for individuals.
When life leads us into exile and deserts where everything falters, including the foundation of our history, vocation and faith, going back to sift through the past to understand if we have been deceived, or to find that land where milk and honey used to flow and from there be able to leave again, is only useless and harmful. The past we remember, even when it is immense and luminous, is never enough to make us continue on our journey today. The past can speak words of life only when conjugated, here and now, to the future. The Promised Land is the land of tomorrow. History, vocation, faith are saved by generating the future - at twenty, fifty or ninety years of age. The Jordan lies in front of us, behind lies only the Nile and the rivers of Babylon. The "returning to God" of the prophets is always a verb in the future tense: «Return, Israel, to the Lord your God. Your sins have been your downfall! Take words with you and return to the Lord. Say to him: “Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously, that we may offer the fruit of our lips"» (Hosea 14,1-2).
At the end of his book, Hosea resumes his great controversy against sacrifices, and he does it in the most beautiful of ways, reaching a pinnacle of his theology and poetry. Here, the alternative to the sacrifice of bulls, which was the sacrifice with the highest cost-value (Leviticus 4,14), is placed in the word, in the movement of lips. And it is splendid, because here we have one of the first attestations of the value of oral prayer as a substitute for sacrifices. To say that a "praise from the lips" surpasses all sacrifices is a revolution in religion and worship because it overturns the category of sacred value. The value of a religious act becomes entirely spiritual, it loses its materiality, leaves the realm of quantity and begins to become a matter of the heart (as Ezekiel would later say), something related to people and no longer with their offerings. No "thing", not even the greatest and most precious of things, is as good as a human whisper. This is biblical humanism, which reaches our liturgies, our Masses, where those goods offered on the altar acquire an infinite value thanks to words, without these, they would perhaps even be good things, but still mere things. Even the words that are spoken during liturgy - prayers, biblical readings, even that humble "peace be with you" - are not a contour, but the substance.
In these verses, however, there is also something more, which directly concerns the nature of the word. We can use things and goods to communicate with each other and even with God. Sometimes, for better or for worse, goods or an object, can say a lot. The silent shopping bag and envelope left at the door of your house by a friend, the linen found folded on the bed, the salary increase to say "thank you", the package with pencils and notebooks that arrives with the truck. All true, all true love. However, after all of this, after all these true word-things, the naked word arrives, our lips arrive. And a new era, the age of women and men who speak, who while speaking can say things that no thing could ever say in their place, begins. Herein lies the dignity of words, the immense value of words in the Bible, a word so esteemed, loved and guarded as to allow one day to write: the word became flesh.
Herein too lies the value of poetry, literature, written and spoken words that vanish as we say them. There are human realities that are valid because they remain - a work of art, a book, an artifact... - and their value is also contained in their materiality. There are others, however, that are worth a great deal precisely because they do not last long, because as we pronounce them they vanish and nourish us with their vanishing. Their sublimity is sublime as they take place; their beauty is due to their ephemeral nature - a sunset, a rainbow, a message saying I love of you, and especially one last thank you. Of course, we can materialize them by taking a photograph or by recording them, but we know that they were wonderful because they are no longer there, because only a trace of them remains. This is the reason the word is the truest image of what a person is, of what we are: ephemeral, yet slightly inferior, a little lower than Elohim (Psalm 8). The Adam created in the image of a God who "was only a voice", one day understood that the word was what brought him closest to his true and different God, who was not seen but who spoke, and we could enter into dialogue with him. The biblical dignity of the word is therefore an anthropological matter: it is when we speak that we most resemble the God-voice. We who speak and write should remember this, every day, every passing moment.
Hosea then tells us that there is no forgiveness without words - «Take words with you... » - because forgiveness must be asked for. On a different day, we heard the story about the Father who welcomed a returning prodigal son and forgave him before he had spoken, and so we discovered that we are also the image of God because sometimes we know how to forgive those who do not ask for it (for-give). Hosea ends his speech with an oracle condemning Israel, because the people had by now totally spoiled themselves, placing their faith in wealth, idols and the help of foreign superpowers – «The people of Samaria must bear their guilt, because they have rebelled against their God» (Hosea 13,16). He also told us that God continued to love his people, but that salvation requires the human aspect as well, an aspect that simply was not there. Hence, he could only reveal the cold, hard truth.
It is very likely that the prophecy of Hosea-the man ended with the judgment of the first verse of chapter 14. That his last words were the words of someone who at the end of his life takes note of the failure of the Covenant and of his own mission as a prophet, meekly accepting that he has not obtained any form of conversion of his people. It is not uncommon - indeed, it is the norm - that prophetic vocations end their existence with a profound sense of failure, with the certainty that the community to which they were sent did not listen to their message and instead turned around and did the opposite. The earthly existence of a prophet often ends in a gloomy dark night, without sunlight or stars - a true prophet is not really understood, if we think that "happiness" is a word in his abecedary.
Thank God, however, that prophets have disciples. In life or after their death, good disciples can, must continue writing the book. Like those who edited a good part of chapter 14, and retracing the teaching of Hosea gave another ending to his book. They felt that the words of condemnation and despair, however true, could not be Hosea’s last words, because their teacher and the people had the right to another ending, inscribed in their prophecy, which was only waiting to be written by a different hand. The disciples of the prophets are also this gift of endings that the prophets are unable to write, who resurrect them from their tombs where the faithful following of the voice has led them and from which they would never have emerged on their own. Without the disciples, the words of many prophets would be too harsh; they would lack the sweetness of their children and the pietas of their friends. True prophets can only be honest and in their honest fidelity to the voice, they grant themselves no consolation, and we can count ourselves lucky that that is the case. They would never change the terrible names of their children ("Un-loved" and "Not-my-people"); it is up to us to do it. The pages of hope and consolation written by the disciples of the prophets are therefore an ending of reciprocity and gratitude, the other and true name of the children: «“I will heal their waywardness and love them freely, for my anger has turned away from them. I will be like the dew to Israel; he will blossom like a lily. Like a cedar of Lebanon he will send down his roots; his young shoots will grow. His splendor will be like an olive tree, his fragrance like a cedar of Lebanon. People will dwell again in his shade; they will flourish like the grain, they will blossom like the vine - Israel’s fame will be like the wine of Lebanon» (Hosea 14,5-8). In the Book of Hosea dominated by figures of animals (lions, horses, bears, leopards, lionesses... ), the conclusion is set in a vegetal environment, in a new Eden of trees, buds, dew, olive trees, wheat and vineyards, and our heart rests in that meekness of the trees that perhaps touches upon that of him hanging from the wood.
His last verse is equally beautiful, and a gift from Hosea's disciples as well: «Who is wise? Let them realize these things. Who is discerning? Let them understand. The ways of the Lord are right; the righteous walk in them, but the rebellious stumble in them» (Hosea 14,9). It would be very nice if our reading of Hosea has been that of those who are friends of the wise and the intelligent, at least in a few pages, in a single one: that of the fidelity towards the unfaithful spouse, the intimate dialogue of love in the desert, the accusations against the priests who feed on the sins of the people. His great cry «For I desire mercy, not sacrifice» (Hosea 6,6), the criticism of the golden calf and all the statue pedestals, «Out of Egypt I called my son» (Hosea 11,1), the other tale of Jacob's struggle with the angel, the gift of incompleteness. If we have heard a different voice saying our name in but one verse, a single one, our work will have paid its just returns. And we can conclude with the most beautiful words of them all: Thank you.
The time has come to bid farewell to Hosea as well, a much loved and immense prophet, sign and flesh, the most human of prophets, and perhaps the one who revealed God's intimacy the most to us. Another farewell, another source of melancholy, and a new joy to be able to continue after a short break (one week) with the commentary of the prophet Daniel. Together with Director Tarquinio, whom I will never be able to thank enough for lack of words, we think that the company of the prophets is perhaps the best company in these terrible times. Thank you to those who have followed us, and thank you to those who will continue to do so.