Pope John Paul II met with 6,000 pilgrims in the Paul VI Hall for his general audience Nov. 27. He continued his catechesis on the psalms and canticles of the Liturgy of the Hours by reflecting on Psalm 99.
Psalm 99 extols God's infinite transcendence as supreme ruler, the Holy Father said. But it also recognizes God's readiness to respond to man's needs. “God is superior to us and places himself infinitely close to every one of his creatures. This transcendence, however, does not make him a ruler who is distant and who cannot be moved. When people call on him, he answers. God is the one who can save and the only one who can free mankind from evil and death,” the Pope said.
This bond between God's holiness and closeness is manifested today in the Church as the Church undertakes her saving mission in the world. “Psalm 99 has become a reality today in the Church, which is the seat of the presence of the holy and transcendent God,” John Paul pointed out. “God came into our midst in his Son, having made himself one of us to infuse us with his life and holiness. Because of this we can approach God with trust, not fear.”
“The Lord is King.” Psalm 99 begins with this acclamation, which reveals its basic theme and its particular literary genre. It is a song that the people of God sing to the Lord, who governs the world and history as a transcendent and supreme ruler. It reminds us of other similar hymns — Psalms 96-98, upon which we have already reflected — that the Liturgy of the Hours includes as ideal morning prayers.
Indeed, as the faithful begin their day, they know that they are not abandoned to the mercy of a blind and uncertain fate — facing the uncertainty of their freedom, dependent on the decisions of others or dominated by the events of history. They know that their Creator and Savior, in his grandeur, holiness and mercy, is above every earthly reality.
God came into our midst in his Son, having made himself one of us to infuse us with his life and holiness. Because of this, we now approach God with trust, not fear.
God Is Holy
Scholars have put forth several hypotheses about how this psalm was used in the liturgy at the Temple of Zion. In any case, it has the tone of a contemplative prayer of praise to the Lord, who is seated in heavenly glory before all the nations and the earth (see verse 1). Yet, God makes himself present within a certain place in the midst of the community—Jerusalem (see verse 2)—thereby showing that he is “God-with-us.”
The psalmist attributes seven solemn TITLEs to God in the first few verses. He is described as king, great, exalted, awesome, holy, mighty and just (see verses 1-4). Further on, God is also described as “forgiving” (see verse 8). Above all, God's holiness is emphasized. Indeed, the words “holy is God” are repeated three times, almost as a kind of antiphon (see verses 3, 5, 9). In biblical language, these words denote first of all God's transcendence. God is superior to us and places himself infinitely above every one of his creatures. This transcendence, however, does not make him a ruler who is distant and who cannot be moved. When people call on him, he answers (see verse 6). God is the one who can save and the only one who can free mankind from evil and death. Indeed, he is a “lover of justice” and he is the one who “created just rule in Jacob” (verse 4).
God Is With Us
The Church Fathers have reflected at length on the theme of God's holiness, extolling God's inaccessibility. Nevertheless, God, who is holy and transcendent, came to dwell in our midst. Moreover, as St. Irenaeus says, he “became accustomed” to man already in the Old Testament by revealing himself in apparitions and speaking through his prophets, while man “became accustomed” to God by learning how to follow and obey him. Likewise, St. Ephrem in one of his hymns emphasizes that just as through the Incarnation “the Holy One made his dwelling in the womb [of Mary] in a bodily way, now he makes his dwelling in our minds in a spiritual way” (Inni sulla Natività, 4, 130). Moreover, through the gift of the Eucharist, just like the Incarnation, “the Dispenser of Life descended from on high to dwell in those who are worthy of him. After he entered, he made his dwelling with us, so we ourselves are sanctified in him” (Inni conservati in armeno, 47, 27, 30).
This deep bond between the holiness and closeness of God is also developed in Psalm 99. In fact, after having contemplated the Lord's absolute perfection, the psalmist recalls that God was constantly in contact with his people through Moses and Aaron, who were his mediators, as well as Samuel, who was his prophet. He spoke and was heard; he punished sin but he also forgave.
The sign of his presence in the midst of the people was “his foot-stool”—the throne of the ark of the Temple of Zion (see verses 5-8). Therefore, the holy and invisible God made himself accessible to his people through Moses the lawmaker, Aaron the priest and Samuel the prophet. He revealed himself in words and deeds of salvation and judgment and was present in Zion through the worship that was celebrated in the Temple.
God Sent Us His Son
We can say, therefore, that Psalm 99 has become a reality today in the Church, which is the seat of the presence of the holy and transcendent God. The Lord has not withdrawn into the inaccessible realm of his mystery, where he is indifferent to our history and to our expectations. He “comes to govern the earth, to govern the world with justice and all the peoples with fairness” (Psalm 98:9).
Above all, God came into our midst in his Son, having made himself one of us to infuse us with his life and holiness. Because of this, we now approach God with trust, not fear. Indeed, in Christ we have the holy high priest, who is innocent and without stain. He “is always able to save those who approach God through him, since he lives forever to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25). Our song, then, is filled with serenity and joy. It exalts the Lord who is king and who dwells among us, wiping every tear from our eyes (see Revelation 21:3-4).