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In this Lenten season let us meditate on the book of Exodus.
Lent invites us to follow Jesus in the desert, led by the Spirit:
” I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart” (Hosea 2:16)
Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our belly clings to the ground. Rise up. (Psalm 44)
The first prayer that we find in the Bible is a cry, a cry that rises into the sky by an oppressed people. To have an experience of liberation one must first feel the need to be liberated, and then cry, believing or hoping that there, or up there, is someone to pick up the cry. If we do not feel oppressed by any pharaoh, or if we have lost hope that someone will listen to our cry, we have no reasons to cry out and we will not be freed.
Moses begins his public life by killing a man: ‘One day, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and looked on their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.’ (2:11-12). Moses, the announcer of the law ‘Thou shalt not kill’ becomes a murderer. In these opening words of the story of Moses, one of the most profound laws of the Bible returns in a mysterious and, for us, a bit disconcerting way. The patriarchs and prophets of the Bible are neither heroes nor models of virtue. They show themselves to us as women and men taken from life, so human in their repertoire to include even the murderous act of Cain. It’s on the basis of their being so fully human that their immense vocations come, and that is how they embark on and end their great spiritual experiences that are also always human. Only if we take upon ourselves the whole of their humanity may their stories of salvation, their hopes and their liberation become ours, too.
After the murder, Moses is taken by fear and he flees from Egypt and arrives in the land of Midian as a stranger (2:15). The years that Moses spends with the Midianites, separated from his people, are also the image of the eclipse of God that Israel is living in Egypt. The oppression of the people, the midwives of Egypt, Moses saved by the women and by the water all take place within a horizon of God’s silence, during a night of the Covenant. God in Egypt is silent, as if he had forgotten his Covenant. The promise dimmed out, the people of the Covenant is oppressed and enslaved in a foreign land. But the oppressed people cannot find the strength to yell and scream, even though it is only their cry that can end this night: ‘…and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God looked upon the children of Israel, and God took heed of them.’ (2:24-25)
Until this cry, in the prehistory and history of Israel we encountered stalks, altars and sacrifices that the patriarchs raised towards heaven to express their thanks. But to find the first prayer we had to go down into Egypt, and get as far as the forced labour camps. It is from there that the first prayer of Israel was raised towards the sky, which was the collective cry of a slave people. And just like when God heard Hagar’s baby cry in the wilderness (Gen 21:17), he also listens now to the cry-prayer of the oppressed. And he answers. The God of the Bible is not the God of the philosophers: YWHW is moved, forgets about himself, he rages, has ears to hear the cry of the oppressed; he remembers and takes heed of them.
There is something valuable hidden in this cry that goes up and is heard. If even God can “forget” about the covenant, and if the cries of the oppressed people succeeded in making him remember the promises made, then to cry out is very important. It is always important, but it is essential when a pact suffers an eclipse and we are abandoned by those who made a covenant with us, when someone with whom we have made promises to each other abandons us. If the screams of pain of the poor once ended the silence of heavens and then opened the sea, then we can and we must also cry out when those who are bound to us by a pact of reciprocity forget us and abandon us as slaves in Egypt.
If God forgot his covenant and the cry of the poor reminded him, then Marco can – and must – cry out to Giovanna, who, forgetting her marriage covenant, left the house and has not returned. We can and we must cry out to Franco, with whom we had made and built the dream of a co-operative with and for the poor, decided to follow the mirages of the many gains, and has left us. We can and we must cry out when those we have sent into parliament and in the government offices forget the political pact for the Common Good, and let the poor die under the oppression of the emperors of gambling or weapons.
When an alliance is broken and, though blameless, we end up with forced labour under the empires, the first thing we need to do is cry out, scream. These cries that rise to the one who has forgotten his covenant with us are the first step towards a possible reconciliation, because they say to ourselves and others that we are aware of us being unfairly in Egypt, that we suffer and we want to get out of these conditions of slavery.
To cry out, however, is not always easy. The first condition to be able to cry out is to believe that those who have abandoned us can be reached by our grief, moved by our tears, remember the covenant and be willing to continue the alliance. We cry out when we believe that the other one can still hear us and start over. The Jewish people cried out because they still believed in the Covenant and in the promise; they believed that the sky they cried out to was not empty. When, however, you lose the faith and hope that you can still start over, the cry goes out inside your throat, not screaming anymore, and the non-cry is the first sign that the faith-hope has died in that relationship.
People, communities and entire peoples have learned how to pray, crying out. It turns out that the sky is not empty when we call it hard, asking, begging to listen to us. When you have already looked ahead and around yourself with no success, it is then that you suddenly and with amazement realise that there is still one direction to try: your gaze is raised to the sky, your eyes and voice are directed upwards together. And that is when the time of true prayer begins.
There are many pacts that die and never rise because someone does not want or is not able to hear our cry of pain. We cry, we scream, and no one answers. The earth is full of these unheard cries. But there are other pacts that are not healed because we cannot scream. We do not succeed for a lack of faith and trust in that broken covenant, because of our pride or too much pain that cuts our breath. Because we did not cry out, no one heard it either; the deliverer did not arrive due to the lack of cries of pain. And so we will never know if on the other side there was someone who was anxiously waiting to hear our cry to start over, and is maybe still waiting for it. We cannot repair our broken pacts if we lose the faith that those who have abandoned us (or seem to have done so) can still hear our cry, will be moved by it, and maybe start over. Then there are also those who are certain that the other will not listen and will not respond, but cry out nevertheless; and it is not uncommon that their faith-confidence returns to them after this desperate cry. Crying out can be a love song, even when it is a desperate prayer.
The poor continue to suffer. Sometimes they manage to cry out, every now and then someone picks up their cry, and liberation comes to them. To be freed and have the experience of liberation, one has to be poor first, to feel some form of poverty. Although it may seem paradoxical to those who only know the side of the pleasures of consumption in life, the absence of cries can be a serious form of poverty. The rich and powerful do not cry out, and so they cannot be freed: they remain slaves in their opulence, and do not have the experience of liberation, which is among the largest and most sublime ones that this world knows. The great shortcoming of our society is liberation, because the fictitious wealth offered by goods is convincing us that we no longer need to be freed. We are slaves in another type of forced labour, but the new ideologies of the new pharaohs succeed in making us feel no need for liberation. There is no slavery that could be deeper than that of those who do not feel their condition of a slave. This slavery is worse than that of those who, feeling oppressed, do not cry anymore because they think no one will hear it and free them (although there are many such people in our muted cities). Today the poorest “peoples” are the opulent ones that do not cry out, do not see or do not recognize their Moses and do not assist in the miracle of a sea that opens to a land ‘flowing with milk and honey’.
Forced labour and forced non-labour continue to grow in the world, but our labour camps do not raise their voice and cry out to heaven. It is only by returning to the state of indigence that we shall find the strength to cry out together, and then we will get a new Moses, and we will set out to walk across the sea.
by Luigino Bruni
published in Avvenire on 17/08/2014