Pope John Paul II met with 8,000 pilgrims in the Paul VI Hall for his general audience June 23. His teaching focused on a short canticle from the Liturgy of the Hours' evening prayer that is found in Chapter 15 of the Book of Revelation.
The canticle, comprised of verses 3 and 4, is a hymn of adoration and praise of the Lord God Almighty, whose deeds are “mighty and wonderful” and whose ways are “just and true.” The hymn is being sung by those who are saved, now standing before the risen Lamb of God.
“Just like the Israelites in Exodus sang the Song of Moses after crossing the sea,” the Pope noted, “the elect raise their voices in ‘the song of Moses' and ‘the song of the Lamb' after having won the victory over the beast, who is God's enemy.”
Instead of lauding their constancy and sacrifices, they exalt the marvelous deeds the Lord has done for them. “Besides petition, authentic prayer is also praise, thanksgiving, blessing, celebration and a profession of faith in the Lord who saves,” the Holy Father pointed out.
John Paul emphasized the canticle's universal dimension: All nations will come and worship before the Lord.
“The expectation for justice, which is present in all cultures,” he said, “and the need for truth and love, which can be perceived in all spiritualities, contain a certain element of reaching out to the Lord that is only satisfied when we draw near to him.”
Besides the psalms, the Liturgy of the Hours' evening prayer includes a series of canticles that are taken from the New Testament. Some, like the one we just heard, are woven together from passages in Revelation, the book that serves as a seal for the whole Bible and that often includes songs and choruses by soloists and hymns by the assembly of the elect as well as the music of trumpets, harps and string instruments.
This canticle, which is very brief, comes from Chapter 15 of this work. It begins with a scene that is both rather original and grandiose: The seven trumpets that heralded an equal number of divine plagues are followed by seven bowls that are filled with plagues, pleghÉ in Greek, an expression that in itself is used to indicate a violent blow that causes a serious wound and, at times, even death. In this case, it is an obvious reference to the plagues of Egypt (see Exodus 7:14-11:10).
In Revelation, the plague is a symbol of judgment on the evil, oppression and violence in the world. For this reason, it is also a sign of hope for the just. As it is well known, the number seven is a sign of fullness in the Bible and the seven plagues are described as the “last” ones (see Revelation 15:1) because through them the intervention of God in order to stem the tide of evil reaches its culmination.
Song of the Just
The hymn is being sung by those who have been saved — the just of this earth — who are “standing” in the same posture as the risen Lamb
(see verse 2). Just like the Israelites in Exodus sang the Song of Moses after crossing the sea (see Exodus 15:1-8), the elect raise their voices in “the song of Moses” and “the song of the Lamb” (Revelation 15:3) after having won the victory over the beast, who is God's enemy (see verse 2).
This hymn is reflective of the liturgy of the churches founded by St. John and comprises an anthology of quotations from the Old Testament, especially the psalms. The early Christian community considered the Bible not only as the soul of its faith and life but also of its prayer and liturgy, which is precisely what occurs in evening prayer, upon which we are reflecting.
It is also significant that the canticle is accompanied by musical instruments: The just are holding harps in their hands (see verse 2), testifying to a liturgy that is enveloped in the splendor of sacred music.
Instead of celebrating their constancy and sacrifice with their hymns, those who have been saved exalt the “great and marvelous works” of the “Lord God Almighty”; that is, his work of salvation in ruling over the world and throughout history. Indeed, besides petition, authentic prayer is also praise, thanksgiving, blessing, celebration and a profession of faith in the Lord who saves.
A Universal Hymn
The universal dimension of this canticle is also significant, expressed in some words from Psalm 86: “All the nations you have made shall come to bow before you, Lord” (Psalm 86:9). Thus its gaze extends beyond our horizon and we can catch a glimpse of the streams of nations that are converging toward the Lord, recognizing his “righteous acts” (Revelation 15:4) — that is, his interventions throughout history in order to stem the tide of evil and to praise what is good. The expectation for justice, which is present in all cultures, and the need for truth and love, which can be perceived in all spiritualities, contain a certain element of reaching out to the Lord that is only satisfied when we draw near to him.
It is a beautiful thing to think of this universal yearning for the dimension of religion and hope, which the prophets raised and to which they gave voice through their words: “For from the rising of the sun even to its setting, my name is great among the nations; and everywhere they bring sacrifice to my name and a pure offering; for great is my name among the nations, says the Lord of hosts” (Malachi 1:11).
Let us conclude by uniting our voice to this universal voice. We will do so through the words of a poem of that great Father of the Church from the fourth century, St. Gregory Nazianzen: “Glory to the Father and to the Son, the king of the universe, and glory to the Most Holy Spirit, to whom be all praise. One God is the Trinity: He created and has filled all things, the heavens with celestial beings and the earth with earthly beings. He has filled seas, rivers and springs with aquatic life, giving life to all things with his own Spirit so that all creation would sing hymns to its wise Creator, for he alone is the cause of their life and of their permanence in living. Above all, may rational creatures sing praise to him always as their powerful king and kind father! O Father, in my spirit and with my soul, tongue and thoughts, make me also glorify you in purity!” (Poesie, 1, Collana di testi patristici 115, Rome, 1994, p. 66-67).