Print Edition: Feb. 22, 2015
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BY Jim Cosgrove
Tribulation is God's way of teaching us, though his mercy is always present, John Paul II told his weekly general audience July 25.
“Affliction therefore seems to be a kind of divine pedagogy in which mercy, nevertheless, always has the last word,” the Pope said.
The Holy Father focused on the biblical portrayal, in the book of Tobit, of God as the one who punishes and saves. He said: “Whoever does good, especially by opening his heart to his neighbor's needs, is pleasing to the Lord. Although he is tested, in the end he will experience the Lord's kindness.”
The Pope recalled the story of the exiled Tobit, who suffered sudden blindness and poverty. Tobit trusted God in spite of his sufferings and was richly rewarded.
“I exalt my God, and my spirit rejoices in the King of heaven” (Tobit 13:7). In the canticle we have just heard, the person who speaks these words is the elderly Tobit, about whom the Old Testament presents a short, inspiring story in the book named after him.
In order to fully understand the meaning of this hymn, one must keep in mind the narrative in the preceding pages. The story is set among the Israelites exiled in Nineveh. The sacred author, who is writing many centuries later, refers to them as an example of brothers and sisters in faith who are dispersed among a foreign people and tempted to abandon the traditions of their fathers.
The picture of Tobit and his family is offered, therefore, as a program for living. He is the man who remains faithful to the requirements of the Law, no matter what — and especially to the practice of alms-giving. Misfortune falls on him, bringing poverty and blindness, yet his faith does not decrease.
And there is no delay in God's response; it comes through the angel Raphael, who guides the young Tobias on a perilous journey that leads to a happy marriage and, finally, to his father Tobit's healing from blindness.
The message is clear: whoever does good, especially by opening his heart to his neighbor's needs, is pleasing to the Lord. Although he is tested, in the end he will experience the Lord's kindness.
Mystery of Suffering
It is against this background that the words of our hymn take on their full meaning. They invite us to lift our gaze above, to “God who lives forever,” and to his Kingdom which “lasts for all ages.”
From this consideration of God there unfolds a short sketch of the theology of history, in which the sacred author seeks to answer the question that the dispersed and tested people of God are asking themselves: Why does God treat us like this?
The answer is found in both divine justice and divine mercy: “He scourged you for your iniquities, but will again have mercy on you all” (verse 5).
Affliction therefore seems to be a kind of divine pedagogy in which mercy, nevertheless, always has the last word: “He scourges and then has mercy; he casts down to the depths of the netherworld, and he brings up from the great abyss” (verse 2).
One can therefore have absolute trust in God, who never abandons his creature.
And so the words of the hymn lead to a perspective that attributes a redeeming significance to the very situation of suffering, turning the exile into an opportunity for giving witness to the works of God: “Praise him, you Israelites, before the Gentiles, for though he has scattered you among them, he has shown you his greatness even there” (verses 3-4).
Trusting in God
From this invitation to read the exile as a providential sign, we can extend our meditation to consider the mysteriously positive meaning which the condition of suffering assumes when it is lived out in abandonment to God's plan.
Already in the Old Testament, various passages sketch out this theme. It is sufficient to recall the story of Joseph, which is told in the Book of Genesis (37:2-36); sold by his brothers, he was destined to be their future savior.
And how can we pass over the Book of Job? Really, here it is the innocent man who suffers and who cannot give an explanation for his tragedy except by entrusting himself to God's greatness and wisdom (Job 42:1-6).
For us who read these Old Testament passages as Christians, our reference point can only be the cross of Christ, which holds a profound answer to the mystery of the world's suffering.
To the sinners who were punished for their iniquities (verse 5), Tobit's hymn addresses a call to conversion and opens up the marvelous prospect of a “reciprocal” conversion of God and man: “When you turn back to him with all your heart, to do what is right before him, then he will turn back to you, and no longer hide his face from you” (verse 6).
This use of the same word — “conversion” — for the creature and for God is very eloquent, though it has a different meaning in each case.
The author of the canticle is thinking, perhaps, of the benefits that accompany God's “turning back” — namely, his renewed favor toward the people. But in the light of the mystery of Christ, we must especially consider that the gift consists in God himself.
Man has more need of God than of his gifts. Sin is a tragedy not so much because it incurs God's punishments, but because it drives him away from our heart.
Praising the Father
This is why the canticle directs our gaze toward the face of God, seen as Father, and invites us to blessing and praise: “He is the Lord our God, our Father” (verse 4).
One feels here the special sense of “sonship” which Israel experienced as a gift of the covenant and which prepared for the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God. At that moment, the Father's face would shine forth in Jesus, and his boundless mercy would be revealed.
It is enough to recall the parable of the merciful father, which is recounted by the Evangelist Luke. The father responds to the conversion of the prodigal son not only with forgiveness, but also with an embrace of infinite tenderness mixed with joy and celebration: “While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him … and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).
The expressions of our canticle are in line with this moving Gospel scene. And from it the need to praise and thank God wells up: “So now consider what he has done for you, and praise him with full voice. Bless the Lord of righteousness, and exalt the King of the ages” (verse 6).
(Translation by Zenit and Register)
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