When he met April 25 with thousands of pilgrims who attended his general audience in St. Peter's Square, John Paul II returned to the catechesis on prayer that he began a month ago.
The Pope focused on Psalm 63, which begins with the cry to God: “For you my body yearns; for you my soul thirsts.” He said the psalmist's plea helps Christians “understand how essential and profound is the need for God.”
In St. Peter's Square under a warm spring sun, the Pope asked pilgrims to picture the setting of Psalm 63: “It is dawn, the sun is rising in the clear sky of the Holy Land and the man of prayer is beginning his day by going to the temple to seek God's light.
“He has a nearly instinctive need for that meeting with the Lord — one could even say, a physical need,” he said.
This hunger for God is satisfied by listening to his word and receiving the body of Christ in the Eucharist, the Pope said.
Psalm 63, on which we reflect today, is a Psalm of mystical love that celebrates total adherence to God, beginning with an almost physical longing and reaching its fullness in an intimate and everlasting embrace. Because it involves the soul and body, prayer becomes desire, thirst and hunger.
As St. Teresa of Avila wrote, “I think thirst demonstrates a desire for something, but the desire is so intense that we die if we are deprived of it” (Way of Perfection, c. XXI). The liturgy proposes to us the two first stanzas of the psalm, which are centered precisely on the symbols of thirst and hunger, while the third stanza presents the dark perspective of God's judgment against evil, which contrasts with the radiance and delight of the rest of the psalm.
We begin our meditation, then, with the first song, the song of thirst for God (see verses 2-4). It is dawn, the sun is rising in the clear sky of the Holy Land and the man of prayer is beginning his day by going to the temple to seek God's light. He has a nearly instinctive need for that meeting with the Lord — one could even say a “physical” need. Just as arid ground is dead, as long as it is not watered by rain, and just as the cracks of dried earth are like thirsty and parched mouths, so the believer longs for God — longs to be filled with him, and so be enabled to live in communion with him.
Water to Refresh the Soul
The prophet Jeremiah had already proclaimed that the Lord is “the source of living waters,” and had reproached the people for having “dug themselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that hold no water” (2:13). Jesus himself would cry out in a loud voice: “Let anyone who thirsts come to me and let him drink who believes in me” (John 7:37-38). At high noon on a sunny, silent day, he promised the Samaritan woman: “Whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14).
The prayer of Psalm 63 is linked by this theme with the song of another wonderful psalm, the 42nd: “As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, O God. My being thirsts for God, the living God” (verses 2-3). Now, in Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, the term for “the soul” is “nefesh,” which in some texts designates the “throat” and in many others is extended to indicate a person's whole being. Understood in this perspective, the word helps us understand how essential and profound is the need for God: Without him breath and life itself mean nothing. Because of this, the psalmist goes so far as to put physical existence itself in second place if it means he will be deprived of union with God: “Your love is better than life” (Psalm 63:4). Psalm 73 also repeats to the Lord: “None beside you delights me on earth. Though my flesh and my heart fail, God is the rock of my heart, my portion forever. … As for me, to be near God is my good” (verses 25-28).
After the lyrics on thirst, the words of the psalmist intone the song of hunger (see Psalm 63:6-9). With the images of the “rich banquet” and satiation, perhaps the man of prayer is alluding to one of the sacrifices that were celebrated in the temple of Zion: the one called the “communion” sacrifice — in other words a sacred banquet in which the faithful ate the flesh of the immolated victims. Here another fundamental need of life is used as a symbol of communion with God: Hunger is satisfied when we listen to God's Word and meet the Lord. In fact, “not by bread alone does man live, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3; see Matthew 4:4). And at this point a Christian's thoughts turn to the banquet that Christ prepared on the last evening of his earthly life, whose profound value he had already explained in his teaching at Capernaum: “For my flesh is true food, and my blood true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him” (John 6:55-56).
Through the mystical food of communion with God “the soul clings fast” to him, as the psalmist declares. Once again, the word “soul” evokes the whole human being. It is no accidentl that there is reference to an embrace, to an almost physical clinging: Now God and man are in full communion and from the lips of the creature there cannot but flow joyful and grateful praise. Even when undergoing the dark night, we feel protected by God's wings, as the ark of the covenant was covered by the cherubim's wings. And now the ecstatic expression of joy bursts forth: “In the shadow of your wings I shout for joy.” Fear vanishes; and one's embrace grasps not the void but God himself; our hand is gripped by the strength of his right hand (see Psalm 63:8-9).
Christ in the Eucharist
When reading this psalm in light of the paschal mystery, the thirst and hunger that impel us toward God find their satisfaction in the crucified and risen Christ, from whom we receive, through the gift of the Spirit and the sacraments, the new life and the nourishment that sustains it.
St. John Chrysostom reminds us of this when, commenting on the observation of John the Evangelist that from the side [of Christ] “blood and water flowed out” (see John 19:34), he affirms: “That blood and that water are symbols of baptism and of the mysteries,” that is, the Eucharist. And he concludes, “See how Christ unites the spouse to himself? See with what food he nourishes all of us? It is from the same food that we were formed and are nourished. Indeed, as the woman feeds the one she has generated with her own blood and milk, so Christ also continually feeds the one he himself has generated with his own blood” (Homily III Addressed to Neophytes, 16-19 passim: SC 50 bis, 160-162).