More than 22,000 pilgrims attended Pope Benedict XVI's general audience in St. Peter's Square Nov.16. The Holy Father, whose catechesis focused on the first half of Psalm 136 during his previous general audience, offered his reflections on the second half of the psalm.
The first part of the psalm, the Pope reiterated, praises God for his mighty work of creation. The second half, he pointed out, speaks about God's wondrous deeds throughout salvation history, especially during Israel's exodus from Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea and the journey through the desert.
“We know that biblical revelation repeatedly proclaims that the presence of God the Savior is manifested in a particular way throughout the history of salvation,” he noted.
“The desert and sea represent, therefore, the passage through evil and oppression in order to receive the gift of freedom,” Benedict said. Psalm 136 is, therefore, a celebration of God's loving, active and faithful mercy. God's intervention in the history of mankind culminates in the mystery of the Incarnation, as the Fathers of the Church repeatedly testified. The Holy Father emphasized that they “saw the gift of the Son, the Savior and Redeemer of mankind, as the culminating point of the history of salvation and the ultimate sign of the Father's merciful love.”
At several points during his talk, Pope Benedict punctuated his prepared text with spontaneous reflections. In one such departure at the end of his talk, he exhorted all those present: “The psalm helps to awaken within us the memory of the good, of all the good things that the Lord has done for us and that he does for us, which we can see if our hearts are attentive. Truly God's mercy is eternal; it is present day after day.”
Once again we reflect on Psalm 136, a hymn of praise which the Liturgy of the Hours’ evening prayer divides into two consecutive parts, keeping with the clear thematic distinction that is found in this composition. In fact, the celebration of the Lord's deeds takes shape within the scope of both space of time.
The first part (see verses 1-9), which was the subject of our last meditation, highlighted God's work as it is displayed throughout creation, giving origin to the wonders of the universe. In that part of the psalm, the psalmist proclaimed his faith in God the Creator, who reveals himself in his creatures throughout the universe. At this point, however, the psalmist's joyful song, which is called “The Great Hallel” (the highest form of praise to the Lord in the Jewish tradition), leads us to yet a different plane, that of history. The first part, therefore, speaks about creation as a reflection of God's beauty; the second part speaks about history and about the good deeds that God has done for us through the ages. We know that biblical revelation repeatedly proclaims that the presence of God the Savior is manifested in a particular way throughout the history of salvation (see Deuteronomy 26:5-9; Genesis 24:1-13).
God's Saving Deeds
Thus, the psalmist sees before him the Lord's saving deeds, which are rooted in that fundamental event: the exodus from Egypt. The difficult journey through the Sinai Desert, whose ultimate destination is the Promised Land — God's gift that Israel continues to experience throughout the Bible — is intimately connected to it.
The famous crossing through the Red Sea, “split in two,” torn and tamed like a monster that has been conquered (see Psalm 136:13), gives birth to a people that has been set free and called to a mission and a glorious destiny (see verses 14-15; Exodus 15:1-21), which, in the Christian interpretation, will result in complete deliverance from sin through the grace of baptism (see 1 Corinthians 10:1-4). Then, the journey through the desert begins. In it, the Lord is presented as a warrior who continues his work of deliverance that began during the crossing of the Red Sea and defends his people by striking down their adversaries. The desert and sea represent, therefore, the passage through evil and oppression in order to receive the gift of freedom and the Promised Land (see Psalm 136:16-20).
The Gift of Freedom
At the conclusion of the psalm, consideration is given to this land, which the Bible enthusiastically extols as “a good country, a land with streams of water, with springs and fountains … a land of wheat and barley, vines, fig trees and pomegranates, olive trees and honey, a land where you can eat bread without stint and where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones contain iron and in whose hills you can mine copper” (Deuteronomy 8:7-9).
This extravagant celebration, which surpasses the reality of that land, attempts to exalt God's gift, thereby directing our attention to the highest of gifts — eternal life with God. This is a gift that allows people to be free, a gift that has its origins — as the antiphon that is repeated in every verse constantly reminds us — in the Lord's hesed, in his love and faithfulness to the commitment that he made through his covenant with Israel, and in his love that continues to reveal itself through his “remembrance” (see Psalm 136:23). During the time of its “misery,” that is, of its successive trials and oppressions, Israel always encounters God's saving hand of freedom and love. Even amidst famine and misery, the Lord appears and offers food to all of mankind, confirming his identity as Creator (see verse 25).
Thus, Psalm 136 links together two dimensions of a single divine revelation — the cosmic (see verses 4-9) and the historical (see verses 10-25). The Lord is, of course, transcendent as the Creator and Judge of all that exists; however, he is also close to his creatures, having entered into space and time. He does not remain on the outside, in the distant heaven. On the contrary, his presence among us reaches its apex in the incarnation of Christ.
The Gift of the Son
This is what the Christian interpretation of the psalm proclaims clearly, as the Fathers of the Church testify, who saw the gift of the Son, the Savior and Redeemer of mankind (see John 3:16), as the culminating point of the history of salvation and the ultimate sign of the Father's merciful love.
Thus, St. Cyprian, a third-century martyr, at the beginning of his treatise on The Works of Charity and Alms, contemplates with awe the work that God has accomplished for his people through Christ his Son, eventually breaking out with passionate thanksgiving for his mercy:
“Dearest brothers, God's good deeds, which the generous and abundant goodness of God the Father and of Christ has accomplished and will always accomplish for our salvation, are many and great. In fact, in order to preserve us, to give us a new life and to be able to redeem us, the Father sent the Son; the Son, who was sent, also wanted to be called Son of Man, so that we might become children of God. He humbled himself in order to exalt the people who, at first, were languishing on earth; he was wounded to heal our wounds; he became a slave in order to lead us, we who were slaves, to freedom. He accepted death in order to be able to offer immortality to mortals. These are the many and great gifts of divine mercy” (1: Trattati : Collana de Testi Patristici, CLXXV, Rome, 2004, p. 108).
With these words, this holy doctor of the Church goes on to develop the psalm with a litany of the good deeds that God has done for us, adding to what the psalmist did not know at the time yet still awaited, the true gift that God has given us: the gift of the Son, the gift of the Incarnation, in which God has been given to us and with which he remains with us in the Eucharist and in his Word every day until the end of history.
The danger we risk is as humans is that our memory of evil, of the evils that have been suffered, is often stronger than the memory of the good. The psalm helps to awaken within us our memory of the good, of all the good things that the Lord has done for us and that he does for us, which we can see if our hearts are attentive. Truly God's mercy is eternal; it is present day after day.