As we progress through the season of Lent, many of the readings proclaimed are also found in the Rite of Penance. Tomorrow’s first reading is one of them.
Some prophets were too young, one was branded on the lips, and one was urged to a very unusual dining experience. Hosea’s experience was also unusual. His marriage and family life were symbolic of his mission. He married an unfaithful woman. He gave his three children names suggesting a deepening divide in the northern kingdom’s relationship with God. Hosea was no nine-to-five prophet. He was for God 24/7.
The final chapter of the book of Hosea offers words of consolation (see Isaiah 40ff, Jeremiah 30-31), and the formula for renewal is fairly explicit.
Thus says the LORD:
Return, O Israel, to the LORD, your God;
you have collapsed through your guilt.
Take with you words,
and return to the LORD;
The formula is still good today:
Forgive all iniquity, and receive what is good …
This is a formula for the scrutinization of the Elect this Lent: eradicating the weak, and drawing out and building up what is good.
Hosea also suggests renouncing what we Christians have come to know as pelagianism, the sense we can accomplish things by our own abilities:
Assyria will not save us,
nor shall we have horses to mount;
We shall say no more, ‘Our god,’
to the work of our hands;
for in you the orphan finds compassion.
What do we receive in return for turning back to God? Simply this: healing and love.
I will heal their defection, says the LORD,
I will love them freely;
for my wrath is turned away from them.
I will be like the dew for Israel:
he shall blossom like the lily;
He shall strike root like the Lebanon cedar,
and put forth his shoots.
His splendor shall be like the olive tree
and his fragrance like the Lebanon cedar.
Again they shall dwell in his shade
and raise grain;
They shall blossom like the vine,
and his fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon.
I love verses 6-8, above. It recalls the great reverence of Saint Hildegard for viriditas, a vitality/greenness/holiness to be found in God’s boundless generosity. We see it in nature’s plenty. We experience it in moments when we turn ourselves over, body and soul, to our loving God. Very fitting for this time of year, even as much of the north languishes with winter snow and barren landscapes.
Hildegard may well have drawn on these prophetic images of plenty for her writings and music. (See Isaiah here, and here, and here, among other places, for the connection between viriditas and human redemption.) Hildegard’s composition (performed on this disc by Sequentia):
O nobilissima viriditas,
quae radicas in sole,
et quae in candida serenitate luces in rota,
quam nulla terrena excellentia comprehendis …
(O noblest viriditas,
who rooted in the sun,
and who, in dazzling serenity, shine in a sphere
that no earthly excellence can fully know …)
But when God graces us with it, we can perceive. And we can know the fruits of reconciliation, as promised to Ephraim:
Ephraim! What more has he to do with idols?
I have humbled him, but I will prosper him.
“I am like a verdant cypress tree”–
Because of me you bear fruit!
The last word from Hosea, advocating not knowledge exactly, but wisdom and prudence.
Let (those who are) wise understand these things;
let (those who are) prudent know them.
Straight are the paths of the LORD,
in them the just walk,
but sinners stumble in them.
This summation skips over a good deal of richness in the whole passage, and indeed, in the entire book. “Walk with God” is an easy thing to say and counsel. But the actual journey includes many missteps as well as many wonders. Reconciliation with God is far more than an intellectual assent to virtue. It requires a commitment to a whole lifestyle, in which we reorient ourselves to the viriditas, the life and grace around us. We don’t just attend to it when we become aware of sin. We can realize that we have many blindspots. We can recognize that a continual orientation to God and renewal in Christ will help us when we have wandered and gotten lost and are not even aware of it.
Hosea brought home his experience of God. He didn’t leave behind his prophetic vocation when it was time to punch his timecard. Modern Christian believers, too, can see that our calling is also meant to permeate our families, our work, our school, our social lives–very much like Hildegard’s experience of the rich, insistent greenery she found in God’s grace. May we all find such grace.