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Isaiah 38

Canticle - The psalm of Hezekiah on recovering from sickness
I was dead, and behold, I am alive and I hold the keys of death (Apoc 1, 17-18).
10-14, 17-20

I said, In the noontide of my days I must depart;
  I am consigned to the gates of Sheol
  for the rest of my years.

I said, I shall not see the Lord
  in the land of the living;
I shall look upon man no more
  among the inhabitants of the world.

My dwelling is plucked up and removed from me
  like a shepherd’s tent;
like a weaver I have rolled up my life;
  he cuts me off from the loom.

From day to night you bring me to an end;
  I cry for help until morning;
like a lion he breaks all my bones;
  from day to night you bring me to an end.

Like a swallow or a crane I clamour,
  I moan like a dove.
My eyes are weary with looking upward.
  O Lord, I am oppressed; be my security.

Lo, it was for my welfare
  that I had great bitterness;
but you have held back my life
  from the pit of destruction,
for you have cast all my sins
  behind your back.

For Sheol cannot thank you,
  death cannot praise you;
those who go down to the pit
  cannot hope for your faithfulness.

The living, the living, he thanks you,
  as I do this day;
  the father makes known to the children your faithfulness.

The Lord will save me,
  and we will sing to stringed instruments
all the days of our life,
  at the house of the Lord."'

Catechesis by Pope St John Paul II on Isaiah chapter 38
General Audience, Wednesday 27 February 2002 - also in French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

Lauds, Tuesday Week 2 - Canticle of Hezekiah - Anguish of a dying man, joy of a healed man

"1. In the various canticles that it combines with the Psalms, the Liturgy of the Hours offers us a hymn of thanksgiving with the title: "The Canticle of Hezekiah, King of Judah, after he had been sick and recovered from his sickness" (Is 38,9). It is found in a section of the book of the prophet Isaiah that is given to historical narratives (cf. Is 36-39), whose histories repeat, with few variants, those presented in the Second Book of Kings (cf. chapters 18-20).

Following the liturgy of Lauds, today we have heard and used for our prayer two strophes of the Canticle that describe the two typical movements of the prayer of thanksgiving: first, one evokes the nightmare of suffering from which the Lord has freed his faithful one, and second, one joyfully sings in thanksgiving for the recovery of life and salvation.

King Hezekiah, a just ruler and friend of the prophet Isaiah, was struck down by a serious illness, that the prophet Isaiah said to be mortal (Is 38,1). "Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord, and said "Remember Lord I beseech you, how I have walked before you in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight'. Hezekiah wept bitterly. Then the word of the Lord came to Isaiah: "Go and say to Hezekiah, Thus says the Lord, the God of David your father: I have heard your prayer and have seen your tears; behold I will add fifteen years to your life!' "(Is 38,2-5).

2. At this point the canticle of thanksgiving bursts from the heart of the king. As I said earlier, he first looks to the past. According to the ancient conception of Israel, death introduced one into a subterranean existence, in Hebrew Sheol, where light was put out, life faded away and became almost ghostlike, time came to a halt, hope was extinguished, and above all there was no longer any possibility of calling upon God and meeting him in worship.

This is why Hezekiah recalled first of all the words full of bitterness that he spoke when his life was sliding towards the frontier of death: "I shall not see the Lord in the land of the living" (v. 11). The Psalmist also prayed this way on the day of his sickness: "No one among the dead remembers you, O Lord. Who sings your praises in Sheol?" (Ps 6,6). Instead, freed from the danger of death, Hezekiah could confirm forcefully and joyfully: "The living, the living, give you thanks as I do this day" (Is 38,19).

3. On this subject, the Canticle of Hezekiah takes a new tone, if read in the light of Easter. Already in the Old Testament, great flashes of light were reflected in the psalms, when the one praying proclaimed his certainty that "you will not abandon me to Sheol, nor let your faithful one see corruption. You will show me the path of life, fullness of joy in your presence, at your right hand rejoicing without end" (Ps 15[16], 10-11; cf. Ps 48[49] and 72[73]). For his part, the author of the Book of Wisdom no longer hesitates to affirm that the hope of the righteous is "full of immortality" (Wis 3,4), because he is convinced that the experience of communion with God lived during the earthly life will not be broken. We will remain always beyond death, sustained and protected by the eternal and infinite God, because the "souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them" (Wis 3,1).

Above all, with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, a seed of eternity was planted and made grow in our mortal perishability, which is why we can repeat the words of the Apostle, based on the Old Testament: "And when that which is corruptible clothes itself with incorruptibility and that which is mortal clothes itself with immortality, then the word that is written shall come about: "Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, o death, is your victory? Where, o death, is your sting?' " (I Cor 15,54-55; cf. Is 25,8; Hos 13,14).

4. However, the canticle of King Hezekiah also invites us to reflect on the fragility of the creature. The images are thought-provoking. Human life is described with the nomadic symbol of the tent: We are always pilgrims and guests on earth. It also refers to images of cloth, that is woven and can remain incomplete when the thread is cut and the work is interrupted (cf. Is 38,12). The Psalmist feels the same sensation: "You have given my days a very short span; my life is as nothing before you. All mortals are but a breath. Mere shadows, we go our way; mere vapour our restless pursuits" (Ps 38[39],6-7). We should recover an awareness of our limitations, knowing that "seventy is the sum of our years, or eighty, if we are strong; most of them are sorrow or toil; they pass quickly, we are all but gone", as the Psalmist says again (Ps 89 [90],10).

5. Therefore, in the day of sickness and suffering, it is right to raise one's lament to God, as Hezekiah teaches us; using poetic images, he describes his weeping as the chirping of a swallow and the moaning of a dove (cf. Is 38,124). And, even if he doesn't hesitate to admit that he feels that God is an adversary, almost like a lion that breaks all his bones (cf. v. 13), he does not cease to invoke him: "O Lord, I am in straits; be my surety!" (v. 14).

The Lord is not indifferent to the tears of the one who suffers, and he responds, consoles and saves, although not always in ways that coincide with what we expect. It is what Hezekiah confesses at the end, encouraging all to hope, to pray, to have confidence, with the certainty that God will not abandon his creatures: "The Lord is our saviour; we shall sing to stringed instruments in the house of the Lord all the days of our life" (v. 20).

6. The medieval Latin tradition conserves a spiritual commentary on the canticle of King Hezekiah by one of the most important mystics of Western monasticism, St Bernard of Clairvaux. It is the third of his Various Sermons. In it, Bernard, applying to the life of each one the drama lived by the ruler of Judah, and internalizing his experience, writes: "I will bless the Lord at all times, namely from morning until evening, as I have learned to do, and not like those who only praise you when you do good to them, nor like those who believe for a certain time, but in the hour of temptation give way; but with the saints I will say: If we received good things from the hand of God, should we not also accept evil things? ... Thus both these moments of the day will be a time of service to God, because at night there will be weeping, and in the morning, joy. I will submerge myself in suffering at night so that I can then enjoy the happiness of the morning" (Scriptorium Claravallense, Sermo III, n. 6, Milan 2000, pp. 59-60).

Thus, St Bernard reads the prayer of the king as representing the prayerful song of the Christian should have the same constancy and serenity in the darkness of the night and of trial, and in the light of day and of joy."


Saluti:

"I gladly offer warm greetings to the English-speaking visitors present today. I express my encouragement to the groups of priests and religious who are following courses of continuing education. Upon all of you, especially the pilgrims from Denmark, Norway, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kuwait, Japan and the United States of America, I invoke the grace and peace of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

J’adresse une cordiale bienvenue aux pèlerins francophones, en particulier aux prêtres de Montréal venus se ressourcer sur la tombe des Apôtres Pierre et Paul. Que ce temps de Carême vous fasse progresser sur le chemin de la sainteté, dans l’écoute de la Parole de Dieu et dans la pratique quotidienne de la charité ! À tous, j’accorde bien volontiers la Bénédiction apostolique.

Herzlich begrüße ich die Pilger und Besucher aus den Ländern deutscher Sprache. In den Wirrnissen der Zeit gebe Euch der ewige Gott die Gewissheit seiner Gegenwart und den Frieden des Herzens! Dazu erteile ich Euch, Euren Lieben daheim und allen, die mit uns über Radio Vatikan und das Fernsehen verbunden sind, den Apostolischen Segen.

Amados peregrinos de língua portuguesa, bem-hajam pela vossa presença e testemunho de amor à Igreja que esta romagem exprime. Deus acolha favoravelmente as vossas preces de peregrinos a caminho do Além, fazendo germinar e crescer, na fraqueza mortal da vossa vida, aquela semente de eternidade que nos trouxe o Filho de Deus com a sua morte e ressurreição. Sobre vós e os vossos, desça a minha Bênção.

Doy mi cordial bienvenida a todos los peregrinos venidos de España y de América Latina, de modo particular al segundo grupo de Obispos argentinos en visita Ad limina. Saludo también a la Comunidad del Pontificio Colegio Internacional "Maria Mater Ecclesiae" de Roma; a los alumnos del colegio "Mater Salvatoris" de Madrid y a los niños del grupo un "gol por la vida" de Colombia. Que la lectura y meditación de este Cántico sea motivo constante de alabanza al Señor, tanto en los momentos de alegría como en los de dificultad. ¡Que Dios os bendiga!

Srdečne pozdravujem pútnikov zo Slovenska: z Galanty a zo Smoleníc, ako aj členov asociácie "Aktívny vozík" s doprovodom. Drahí bratia a sestry, Pôstne obdobie nás pozýva k obráteniu prostredníctvom modlitby, skutkov milosrdenstva a počúvania Božieho Slova. Prajem vám plodné prežitie pôstneho obdobia a udel'ujem vám zo srdca svoje Apoštolské požehnanie. Pochválený bud' Ježiš Kristus!

Pozdravljam vjernike Župe Presvetoga Trojstva iz Blagaja - Bune, koji su ovdje došli sa svojim župnikom, i ostale hrvatske hodočasnike. Dobro došli! Predragi, od srca želim da sveto korizmeno vrijeme u kojemu se nalazimo vama i vašim obiteljima donese obilne plodove obraćenja i svetosti. Svima vrlo rado udjeljujem apostolski blagoslov. Hvaljen Isus i Marija!

Saluto cordialmente i pellegrini di lingua italiana, in particolare gli allievi della Scuola di Polizia di Roma ed il gruppo UNITALSI della diocesi di Porto Santa Rufina, ringraziandoli per la loro partecipazione a questo incontro. Saluto, poi, voi cari bambini, e quanti hanno partecipato al concorso sul tema della pace promosso dalla Giunta Regionale Toscana, e auspico che questa lodevole iniziativa, che ha coinvolto le scuole di 63 Paesi del mondo, accresca in ciascuno generosi propositi di amicizia e solidarietà.

Saluto, infine, i giovani, i malati e gli sposi novelli. Carissimi, proseguendo nell’itinerario quaresimale, la Chiesa ci invita a seguire docilmente l’azione dello Spirito Santo che ci conduce sulle orme di Cristo verso Gerusalemme, dove si compirà la sua missione redentrice. Sappiate lasciarvi ogni giorno plasmare dalla sua grazia affinché sia nello studio, sia nella malattia, sia nella vita di famiglia possiate sperimentare la ricchezza spirituale del cammino di conversione e di penitenza che stiamo vivendo in questo sacro tempo."