Pope John Paul II met with more than 10,000 pilgrims during his general audience June 16 in St. Peter's Square. The Holy Father arrived by car and made a large circuit around St. Peter's Square to welcome the pilgrims.
His teaching focused on Psalm 46, which is one of six psalms known as the Songs of Zion. The psalm celebrates the special status of Jerusalem as “the holy dwelling of the Most High,” and the psalmist expresses his unshakeable confidence in God, who is the source of complete security.
“The first part of the hymn focuses on the symbol of water,” the Pope pointed out, both as a destructive force and a source of refreshment. “The psalmist, referring both to the waters of Jerusalem and to the waters of Shiloah, perceives in them a sign of the life that flourishes in the holy city, of its spiritual fruitfulness and of its regenerating power.”
The second part sketches the portrait of a world the Lord has transformed. “From his throne in Zion, the Lord himself intervenes against war in an extremely forceful way and establishes the peace for which all people yearn,” the Holy Father said.
John Paul noted that our Christian tradition applies this psalm to Christ, who is our peace, and St. Ambrose saw it as a prophecy of Christ's resurrection.
We have just heard the first of the six Songs of Zion that are contained in the Book of Psalms (see Psalms 46, 48, 76, 84, 87, 122). Psalm 46, like the other compositions of the same genre, celebrates the holy city of Jerusalem, “the city of God, the holy dwelling of the Most High” (see verse 5). Above all, however, it expresses an unshakeable confidence in God, “who is our refuge and our strength, an ever-present help in distress” (see verse 2 as well as verses 8 and 12). The psalm evokes some rather tremendous upheavals in order to affirm in a more powerful way God's victorious intervention, which gives us complete security. Because of God's presence, Jerusalem “shall not be shaken; God will help it at the break of day” (see verse 6).
This reminds us of the prophecy the prophet Zephaniah addressed to Jerusalem when he said: “Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, O Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! … The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; he will rejoice over you with gladness and renew you in his love; he will sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals” (Zephaniah 3:14, 17-18).
Psalm 46 is divided into two main parts by a sort of antiphon that resounds in verses 8 and 12: “The Lord of hosts is with us; our stronghold is the God of Jacob.” The title of “Lord of hosts” is typical of Jewish worship in the Temple of Zion, and despite its military overtones is connected with the Ark of the Covenant and refers to God's lordship over the entire universe and over history.
For this reason, this title is a source of confidence because the entire world and everything that happens in it are under the Lord's supreme rule. Therefore, the Lord is “with us,” as the antiphonal verse says, implicitly referring to Emmanuel, “God is with us” (see Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23).
The River of Life
The first part of the hymn focuses on the symbol of water, giving it a double meaning resulting in a contrast. On one hand, for example, the raging waters break forth, which, in biblical language, is a symbol of devastation, chaos and evil. They shake the very structures of life and of the universe, which is symbolized by the mountains that totter as something akin to a destructive flood pours forth (see verse 3-4). On the other hand, however, we behold the refreshing waters of Zion, a city set upon arid mountains, which are “streams of the river” that give gladness. The psalmist, referring both to the waters of Jerusalem and to the waters of Shiloah (see Isaiah 8:6-7), perceives in them a sign of the life that flourishes in the holy city, of its spiritual fruitfulness and of its regenerating power.
Thus, despite the upheavals of nations and kingdoms throughout history (see Psalm 46:7), the faithful will encounter a peace and tranquility in Zion that comes from communion with God.
A World Transformed
In a sense, the second part of the psalm (see verses 9-11) sketches a portrait of a world that has been transformed. From his throne in Zion, the Lord himself intervenes against war in an extremely forceful way and establishes the peace for which all people yearn. When we read verse 10 of this hymn, “Who stops wars to the ends of the earth, breaks the bow, splinters the spear and burns the shield with fire,” we are immediately reminded of Isaiah.
The Peace of Christ
This prophet also sang about the end of the arms race and the transformation of weapons of death into resources to aid the development of nations: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again” (Isaiah 2:4).
Our Christian tradition has used this psalm to sing praise to Christ, “our peace” (see Ephesians 2:14), who has delivered us from evil through his death and resurrection. The commentary St. Ambrose developed in relationship to verse 6 of Psalm 46 is thought-provoking because it describes the “help” the Lord offers the city “at the first hour of the morning.” This famous Father of the Church perceives it as a prophetic allusion to the Resurrection.
In fact, he explains, “the morning Resurrection procures the sustenance of heavenly help for us, which has driven back the darkness of night and brought us the day, as Scripture says: ‘Awaken, arise from the dead! The light of Christ will shine for you!’ Observe its mystical meaning! Christ's passion took place in the evening … his resurrection at dawn … In the evening, the world dies as the light also dies, as this world was living completely in darkness and would have been immersed in the horror of even greater darkness if Christ, the eternal light, had not come down from heaven to bring forth an age of innocence for all mankind. Therefore, Jesus the Lord suffered, and with his blood he has redeemed us from our sins, he has enlightened our consciences with a clearer light and an age of spiritual grace shines forth” (Commento a dodici Salmi: Saemo, VIII, Milan-Rome, 1980, p. 213).