The fruitful wounds of labour

Listening to Life/24 - The novelty of the "man of sorrows" generates joy

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 04/12/2016

Pietà postmoderna ridI sing of the man who died, not the God who is risen. I sing of the man covered in mud, not the God who is washed clean. I singing of the crazy man, not the God who has come to his senses

Roberto Roversi and Lucio Dalla

The Servant Songs are the summit of the Book of Isaiah, and one of the most elevated passages of the spiritual literature of all time. It is a prophetic text that's admirably poetic, capable of collecting the expectations and hopes of the preceding history and of prefiguring a man and God who was not yet there. These are improbable words, verses that no one had ever written, that could not be written. And yet we have them.

"As many were astonished at you — / his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, / and his form beyond that of the children of mankind— / so shall he sprinkle many nations." (Isaiah 52:14). How is it possible that a man disfigured and deformed by suffering becomes the object of wonder for all peoples? In fact, the prophet asks himself: "Who has believed what he has heard from us?" (53:1). And then he continues with words that we cannot read without getting wounded by their painful beauty: "he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, / and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, / a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; / and as one from whom men hide their faces / he was despised, and we esteemed him not." (53:2-3). We cannot perceive the strength of these songs without considering how suffering and misfortune were seen in the ancient world, even in Israel prior to these songs of the Second Isaiah - and before Job. For the theologies of those times, suffering was the fate of sinners or the heirs of sinners. There was no possibility for the righteous sufferer. Viewers and readers did not feel any spiritual empathy for the victims. In ancient times, the natural solidarity of people was covered out by theologies and theodicies developed to find a just order behind the manifestations of injustice under the sun: "yet we esteemed him stricken, / smitten by God, and afflicted." (53:4) The one afflicted (humiliated) by people was also stricken by God. Therefore, the extraordinary theological revolution of these songs is to be found in the innocence of the victim: "although he had done no violence, / and there was no deceit in his mouth" (53:9). These are just a few words, but capable of performing an epochal religious turn: the victim is an innocent person. The scapegoat that breaks the repetition of violence in the community through its sacrifice has no fault, it is a lamb without stain. The victim is immaculate: "He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,/ yet he opened not his mouth; / like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, / and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, / so he opened not his mouth." (53:7) It's the end of the era of blaming the victims, the bucks that deserve their sad fate. The servant of YHWH is an innocent buck. Job was also innocent, and throughout his drama he defends his innocence against his 'friends' and against God. But in the process of Job, when God appears he does not approve the protest of Job: the God of the Book of Job is not up to the questions of Job. In the song of the servant of YHWH it is different: through the words of the prophet, God himself states the innocence of His servant, to reveal new dimensions of the meaning of suffering to us, which did not come up even in the extraordinary story of Job - a revolutionary book because of its anthropology (and poetry).  

The song of the servant therefore marks the end of the double misfortune of the poor, the weak, the discarded, the little ones, of all the victims of the powerful, those humiliated and crushed in the flesh and in spirit, those oppressed by the powerful, by life and by God, and at the same time the rich and powerful who are called blessed by life and by God. Shamed by life, condemned by God. It's the end of the economic religion, where the poor were the currency to pay off the debts of powerful people in need of reassuring their conscience while producing and reproducing the injustices and abuses of power. The prophets (and Job) are the greatest friends of the poor, because they are the main enemies of the manipulative theories of the powerful and strong, who also associated the deity and his priests to their cause - it is a fundamental message today when capitalism tries to blame the poor and discarded again in the name of merit and efficiency.

But the revolution of the servant does not stop there. It continues, opening up even more incredible and improbable horizons and boundless spaces to us. The servant is not only innocent, but "Surely he has borne our grieves / and carried our sorrows; (...) But he was pierced for our transgressions; / he was crushed for our iniquities (...) and with his wounds we are healed." (53:4-5). How was it possible to write these songs, to think of them or say them? From where did they spring? Today we have Christ, the Gospels, Paul, the martyrs, Saint Francis, Father Kolbe, and the many men and women who have given us the words and verbs to understand or at least intuit something of those words. But what about him? Where did he learn these songs? Certainly from his people: the men and women of his time knew that the victims and the poor are innocent, even if the theology of the powerful wanted to convince them otherwise. Men knew it, but women, mothers knew it even more. They knew that their children were innocent, even when everyone and everything said the opposite. They have always known that no mistakes, even the biggest, can drive us out of the blessings of creation, that innocence is deeper than our sin and that of others. When humanity loses the sense of this radical innocence, what remains is perpetual revenge only, with its endless violence. The 'mark of Cain' is also a sign of this innocence, it says that revenge should not be and is not the last word on our relations. That there is no sin that can be greater than our innocence.

But the fourth song of the servant tells us something more. The servant was not only innocent: he was wounded for our transgressions, he was beaten, put to death for our sins. A community, perhaps a people was healed because of his wounds.  And here everything gets complicated. What is the meaning of this 'vicarious suffering', this unjust pain of the innocent for the benefit of others? Civilizations, including that of the Bible, knew this kind of suffering. Many sacrifices had their meaning in offering the suffering of one in exchange for the blessing of the others. Lambs, but also children and virgins were sacrificed on the altars of the gods thinking that their suffering and death atoned for the sins of the community and were a pleasing offering to the gods who were hungry for blood and never satiated. Those children, animals and virgins, were innocent, too, they were chosen precisely because they were innocent. This vision is a perfect expression of economic and mercantile religion, the one the servant songs want to overcome and renounce.

What sense does the suffering of the innocent servant make? It is not enough to say that the people read the story of that innocent man as a collective realisation that something that concerned them was taking place in that suffering, that only one man was 'paying' for many. If this was the idea of ​​God in these chapters of the Second Isaiah, there would be no theological revolution, but we would still be inside the old retributive theology - as happens to some theological readings of the death and passion of Christ. To understand the human and spiritual significance of these verses, we must take risks and be more daring. We must read the songs of the servant also as a personal experience of the prophet, as an auto-biographical account of the Second Isaiah or one of his disciples who had accompanied and known him very closely.

No one can read our suffering as expiation for their sins if we do not decide intentionally and freely to go through them as a gift to others. Without this choice of living and interpreting our innocent misfortune as the liberation of others, any external reading of our suffering is a reissuing of the archaic theology of the scapegoat. That's why these beautiful verses can be read as a further revelation of the prophetic vocation, perhaps the most intimate, secret and sublime one.

One day, perhaps, at the height of his prophetic vocation in the time of exile, humiliated and rejected by his people and by the oppressor, that prophet chose to live their suffering as the last step of the incarnation of his call, as the bodily fulfilment of what he had said with his voice. The Servant Songs are the final song of the Second Isaiah. But they are also the final song of the vocation of many prophets, founders of communities, spiritual movements and ideals. For these people, the song of the servant of YHWH arrives at the peak of their existence and vocation. For reasons that are different every time, there comes a time of humiliation, contempt and rejection, expulsion and endless suffering, sometimes brought about by their own community. It may so happen that the prophet and the founder understand that the only thing that they can and must do is to remain silent, become a lamb under the hand of the shearer. It is the time of the stigmata. For those who manage to stay under the gentle hand that works them in moral and physical suffering, the alchemy sung by the servant takes effect: it is understood that in the crucified abandonment the communities and the people are being regenerated; that those wounds were also the wounds of the second birth. And also the shearer becomes the good shepherd. The ancient song of the servant is revived only when our sufferings that arise from diversity, from evilness and life become an act of giving birth intentionally. A miracle happens, which is all gratuitousness and all the fruit of a whole life lived following the voice, that their flesh and blood are transformed into the body of the wounded and wounding communities. To redeem them truly and forever. They are very rare experiences that make the earth a piece of paradise: "Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; / break forth into singing and cry aloud, / you who have not been in labour! / For the children of the desolate one will be more / than the children of her who is married" (54:1).

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