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Psalm 136 [135]

Catechesis by Benedict XVI
- in Croatian, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish
Vespers (Evening Prayer), Monday Week 4

Paschal hymn - 1-9

1. This Psalm was called "the Great Hallel", that is, the grandiose and solemn praise that the Jews intoned during their Passover liturgy. We are referring to Psalm 136, whose first part we have just heard, in accordance with the way the Liturgy of Vespers divides it.

Let us first reflect on the refrain "for his mercy endures for ever". At the centre of the phrase the word "mercy" rings out. In fact, it is a legitimate but limited translation of the original Hebrew term hesed. This is actually a word that belongs to the characteristic terminology used in the Bible to express the Covenant that exists between the Lord and his People. The term seeks to define the attitudes deriving from this relationship: faithfulness, loyalty, love, and of course, God's mercy.

We have here a concise summary that portrays the deep, personal bond established by the Creator with his creature. With this relationship, God does not appear in the Bible as an impassive and implacable Lord against whose mysterious power it is useless to struggle.

Instead, he shows himself as a person who loves his creatures, watches over them, follows them on their way through history and suffers because of the infidelities with which the people often oppose his hesed, his merciful and fatherly love.

2. The first visible sign of this divine love, says the Psalmist, is to be sought in creation and then in history. The gaze, full of admiration and wonder, will rest first of all on creation: the skies, the earth, the seas, the sun, the moon and the stars.

Even before discovering the God who reveals himself in the history of a people, there is a cosmic revelation, open to all, offered to the whole of humanity by the one Creator, "God of gods" and "Lord of lords".

As sung in Psalm 19: "The heavens proclaim the glory of God and the firmament shows forth the work of his hands. Day unto day takes up the story and night unto night makes known the message" (v2-3). Thus, a divine message exists, secretly engraved in creation and a sign of the hesed, the loving fidelity of God who gives his creatures being and life, water and food, light and time.

A clear vision is essential in order to contemplate this divine revelation, recalling the recommendation of the Book of Wisdom that invites us to recognize "the greatness and the beauty of created things, [whose] original author, by analogy, is seen" (Wis 13: 5).

Prayerful praise, therefore, flows from contemplation of the "marvellous works" that God has wrought in creation that are transformed into a joyful hymn of praise and thanksgiving to the Lord.

3. Consequently, we rise from the works of creation to the greatness of God and to his loving mercy. This is what we are taught by the Fathers of the Church, in whose voices resound the constant Christian Tradition. Thus, St Basil the Great, in one of the initial pages of his first homily on the Hexaemeron, where he comments on the creation narrative in the first chapter of Genesis, pauses to consider God's wise action and is brought to recognize God's goodness as the dynamic centre of creation. The following are several sayings from the long reflection of the Holy Bishop of Caesarea of Cappadocia: ""In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth'. My words give way, overwhelmed by wonder at this thought."

In fact, even if some, "deceived by the atheism they bore within them, imagined that the universe lacked guidance and order, at the mercy as it were of chance", the sacred author instead "immediately enlightened our minds with the Name of God at the beginning of the account, saying: "In the beginning... God created.." And what beauty there is in this order!"

"So if the world has a beginning and has been created, it seeks the One who gave it being and is its Creator... Moses prepared you with his teaching, impressing in our souls as a seal and amulet the Most Holy Name of God, when he says: "In the beginning God created'. Blessed nature, goodness exempt from envy, the one who is the object of love to all reasonable beings, beauty in addition to everything else that is desirable, the principle of beings, the source of life, the light of the mind, inaccessible wisdom, in brief, it is he who "in the beginning created the heavens and the earth'".

I find the words of this 4th century Father surprisingly up to date when he says: Some people, "deceived by the atheism they bore within them, imagined that the universe lacked guidance and order, at the mercy as it were of chance". How many these "some people" are today! Deceived by atheism they consider and seek to prove that it is scientific to think that all things lack guidance and order as though they were at the mercy of chance. The Lord through Sacred Scripture reawakens our reason which has fallen asleep and tells us: in the beginning was the creative Word. In the beginning the creative Word - this Word that created all things, that created this intelligent design which is the cosmos - is also love.

Therefore, let us allow this Word of God to awaken us; let us pray that it will additionally illumine our minds so that we can perceive the message of creation - also written in our hearts - that the beginning of all things is creative wisdom, and this wisdom is love, it is goodness: "his mercy endures for ever".

BXVI - General Audience, Wednesday 9 November 2005 - © Copyright 2005 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana

"To the God of Heaven give thanks" - 10-26

(Evening Prayer, Monday, Week 4) - in Croatian, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish
General Audience - 16 November 2005 - © Copyright 2005 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana

1. Our reflection returns to the hymn of praise in Psalm 136 which the Liturgy of Vespers presents in two successive stages, following the specific distinction of themes offered by the composition. Indeed, the celebration of the Lord's works is described in two spheres: space and time.

In the first part, which was the subject of our last meditation, we focused on the divine acts expressed in creation; the marvels of the universe were born from them. In that part of the Psalm, therefore, faith is expressed in God the Creator who reveals himself through his cosmic creatures.

Now, instead, the joyful hymn of the psalmist, called by Jewish tradition "the Great Hallel" or the most exalted praise raised to the Lord, leads us to a different horizon, that of history.

The first part, therefore, addresses creation as a reflection of God's beauty, and the second part speaks of history and the good that God has done for us in the course of time.

We know that biblical Revelation repeatedly proclaims that the presence of God the Saviour is manifested in particular in the history of salvation.

2. Thus, the Lord's liberating actions, the heart of the fundamental event of the Exodus from Egypt, pass before the psalmist's eyes. Closely connected with the Exodus is the gruelling journey through the Sinai Desert, whose ultimate destination is the Promised Land, the divine gift that Israel continues to experience in all the pages of the Bible.

The famous crossing of the Red Sea, "divided in two", split as it were in two and subdued like a defeated monster, brings forth the free people called to a mission and a glorious destiny, who will have a new Christian interpretation in their full liberation from evil by baptismal grace.

The journey then begins through the desert: there the Lord is portrayed as a warrior who, by continuing the work of liberation begun in the Red Sea crossing, stands by his people to defend them by striking down their enemies. The desert and the sea thus represent the passage through evil and oppression, to receive the gift of freedom and the Promised Land.

3. In the finale, the Psalm looks out over that land which the Bible praises enthusiastically as "a good country, a land with streams of water, with springs and fountains welling up..., a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, of olive trees and of honey, a land where you can eat bread without stint and where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones contain iron and in whose hills you can mine copper" (Dt 8:7-9).

This emphatic celebration, which goes beyond the reality of that land, wants to exalt the divine gift, focusing our expectations on the most sublime gift of eternal life with God. It is a gift that enables people to be free, a gift that is born - as the refrain which marks every verse continues to repeat - by the hesed of the Lord, that is, his "mercy", by his faithfulness to the commitment he made in the Covenant with Israel and by his love that continues to be revealed because "he remembered" them.

In the time of "humiliation", that is, of the series of trials and oppression, Israel was always to discover the saving hand of the God of freedom and love. Even in times of hunger and wretchedness, the Lord was to arrive on the scene to offer food to all humanity, confirming his identity as Creator.

4. Consequently, with Psalm 136 two forms of the one divine Revelation are interwoven: the cosmic and the historical. The Lord, of course, is transcendent as the Creator and Arbiter of being; but he is also close to his creatures, entering space and time. He does not remain far away, in a distant Heaven. On the contrary, his presence in our midst reaches its crowning point in Christ's Incarnation.

This is what the Christian interpretation of the Psalm clearly proclaims, as the Fathers of the Church testified: they saw as the culminating point of the history of salvation and the supreme sign of the Father's merciful love his gift of his Son to be the Saviour and Redeemer of humanity.

Thus, at the beginning of his treatise The Works of Charity and Alms, St Cyprian, a 3rd century martyr, contemplates with wonder the acts that God accomplished for his people through Christ his Son, and finally bursts into passionate recognition of his mercy.

"Dearest brothers, many and great are God's benefits, which the generous and copious goodness of God the Father and of Christ has accomplished and will always accomplish for our salvation. In fact, to preserve us, to give us a new life and to be able to redeem us, the Father sent the Son; the Son, who was sent, wanted to be called also Son of Man, to make us become children of God; he humbled himself to raise the people who were first lying on the ground, was wounded to heal our wounds, he became a slave to lead us, who were slaves, to freedom. He accepted death to be able to offer immortality to mortals. These are the many and great gifts of divine mercy."

With these words, the holy Doctor of the Church develops the Psalm with a litany of benefits that God has given us, adding to what the psalmist did not yet know but expected, the true gift that God has made to us: the gift of his Son, the gift of the Incarnation in which God gave himself to us and stays with us, in the Eucharist and in his Word, every day, to the very end of history.

Our danger is that the memory of evil, of the evils suffered, may often be stronger than the memory of good. The Psalm's purpose is also to reawaken in us the memory of good as well as of all the good that the Lord has done and is doing for us, which we can perceive if we become deeply attentive. It is true, God's mercy endures for ever: it is present day after day.