Psalm 136, also known as “The Great Hallel,” a solemn hymn of praise that the Jewish people sang during Passover, was the central theme of Pope Benedict's catechesis during his general audience in St. Peter's Square on Nov.9. More than 25,000 people were present.
Focusing the refrain, “God's love endures forever,” the Holy Father pointed out that the key word is love.
“The word ‘love’ resounds at the heart of this refrain, which is a legitimate but rather limited translation of the original Hebrew word hesed, he said. “The word attempts to describe the attitudes found within this relationship: faithfulness, loyalty, love and God's mercy.” Pope Benedict emphasized that God is not a cold and distant God but a God who loves his creatures and suffers when they are unfaithful to him and reject his fatherly love.
The Holy Father pointed out that the psalmist recognizes the first signs of God's love in the wonders of creation.
“Even before discovering the God who reveals himself in the history of his people, there is a cosmic revelation that everyone can see, which the one and only Creator, the ‘God of gods’ and the ‘Lord of lords,’ offers to all mankind,” he said. “There exists, therefore, a divine message secretly inscribed in creation as a sign of the hesed (loving faithfulness of God).”
Quoting St. Basil the Great, Pope Benedict XVI noted that the Fathers of the Church teach us to recognize the greatness of God in creation and his merciful love towards us. Setting aside his prepared text, he encouraged all Christians to open their hearts to God's Word “so that we might perceive the message of creation, which is also inscribed in our hearts, that the beginning of everything is creative Wisdom and that this Wisdom is love and goodness: ‘His mercy endures forever!’”
Psalm 136 has been called “The Great Hallel,” a solemn and majestic hymn of praise that the Jewish people would sing during the Passover liturgy. We have just listened to the first part of the psalm, according to the division used in the Liturgy of the Hours’ evening prayer.
Let us reflect first of all on the refrain, “God's love endures forever.” The word “love” resounds at the heart of this refrain, which is a legitimate but rather limited translation of the original Hebrew word hesed. It is part of the language that is typically used in the Bible to express the covenant that exists between the Lord and his people. The word attempts to describe the attitudes found within this relationship: faithfulness, loyalty, love and God's mercy.
A God of Love
We have here a concise portrayal of the deep and interpersonal bond that the Creator has established with his creatures. Within this relationship, God does not appear in the Bible as some emotionless and merciless Lord, nor as some obscure and incomprehensible being, similar to fate — a mysterious force against which it is useless to fight. Rather, he manifests himself as a person who loves his creatures, watches over them, follows them throughout the course of history, and suffers because of the unfaithfulness with which his people often oppose his hesed, his merciful and fatherly love.
The first visible sign of God's love, the psalmist says, is to be found within creation. At this point, history enters the scene. Full of admiration and awe, he first pauses to cast his gaze on creation: the heavens, the earth, the waters, the sun, the moon and the stars.
Even before discovering the God who reveals himself in the history of his people, there is a cosmic revelation that everyone can see, which the one and only Creator, the “God of gods” and the “Lord of lords,” offers to all mankind (see verses 2-3).
As Psalm 19 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the sky proclaims its builder's craft. One day to the next conveys that message; one night to the next imparts that knowledge” (verses 2-3). There exists, therefore, a divine message secretly inscribed in creation as a sign of the hesed (loving faithfulness of God), who gives life, water, food, light and time to his creatures.
We need clear vision in order to contemplate this revelation of God, keeping in mind the admonition from the Book of Wisdom that reminds us that “from the greatness and the beauty of created things their original author, by analogy, is seen” (Wisdom 13:5; see Romans 1:20). Therefore, prayerful praise flows from contemplating God's “great wonders” (see Psalm 136:4), which are found throughout creation, and is transformed into a joyful hymn of praise and thanksgiving to the Lord.
God's Loving Mercy
Thus, we ascend from the works of creation to the greatness of God and to his loving mercy. This is what the Fathers of the Church taught us, whose voices echo the continuity of Christian tradition.
St. Basil the Great, in one of the opening pages of his first homily on the Hexameron where he provides a commentary on the account of creation found in the first chapter of Genesis, pauses to meditate on the wisdom of God's work and is led to recognize God's goodness as creation's driving force. Here are some comments from the lengthy meditation of this holy bishop of Caesarea of Cappadocia:
“‘In the beginning God created the heavens and earth.’ My word surrenders, overcome by the awe of this thought” (1, 2, 1: Sulla Genesi [Omelie sull'Esamerone], Milan, 1990, pp. 9, 11). Even though some people, “deceived by the atheism they bear within them, imagined that the universe was deprived of any guidance and order, as though it were at the mercy of fate,” this sacred writer, instead, “has immediately enlightened our minds with the name of God at the beginning of his account, saying: ‘In the beginning God created.’ And what beauty this order has!” (1, 2, 4: ibid, page 11).
“If, then, the world had a beginning and was created, seek out the one who began it and the one who is its Creator. … Moses has prepared you with his teaching, inscribing on our souls the most holy name of God as a seal or phylactery when he says: ‘In the beginning God created.’ The blessed nature, goodness free from envy, he who is the object of the love of all reasoning beings, beauty greater than any that can be desired, the beginning of all beings, the source of life, the light of understanding, inaccessible wisdom, He, in a word, ‘in the beginning created the heavens and the earth’” (1, 2, 6-7: ibid, page 13).
I find that when this Father from the fourth century says that some people, “deceived by the atheism they bear within them, imagined that the universe was deprived of any guidance and order, as though it were at the mercy of fate,” his words are surprisingly relevant today. Who are these people today, who, deceived by atheism, hold onto and try to prove that it is scientific to think that everything is deprived of any guidance and order, as though it were at the mercy of fate?
The Lord, through sacred Scripture, awakens the reasoning that is asleep within us and tells us: In the beginning was the creative Word — the Word that created everything, that created this intelligent design that is the universe — and also love.
Therefore, allow this Word of God to awaken us. Let us pray that it will also enlighten our minds so that we might perceive the message of creation, which is also inscribed in our hearts, that the beginning of everything is creative Wisdom and that this Wisdom is love and goodness: “His mercy endures forever!”