The “fascination” that God exerts on man is a duel between his tremendous force and his serene tenderness, with the latter prevailing, said John Paul II in his weekly general audience June 13.
Some 15,000 pilgrims gathered to hear his catechesis in blinding sunshine in St. Peter's Square.
The Pope spoke of the powerful images of Psalm 29, “the psalm of the seven thunders,” as part of his ongoing series of reflections on the biblical prayers used in the Liturgy of the Hours.
The psalm is dominated by the image of a thunderstorm, seen as a symbol of the powerful voice of God.
The storm rises from the sea and its unstoppable and destructive power is felt everywhere. The psalm suggests, in this way, that we cannot capture the mystery of God; he is transcendent and nothing can resist his sovereign power and activity.
The psalm goes on to speak of the adoration of God in the Temple at Jerusalem. There the terror of the storm is replaced by the certainty of God's protection. In the intimacy of prayer and in the liturgy, God enables us to overcome anxiety and fear.
As we take part in the heavenly liturgy with all the “children of God”—the angels and the saints—we experience the protective love of God our Father, who blesses us with his gifts of strength and peace.
Some scholars consider Psalm 29, which we have just heard, to be one of the oldest texts of the psalter. The image that sustains its poetic and prayerful development is a powerful one. It sets us, in fact, before the progressive unfolding of a storm. In the Hebrew original, this is indicated by the word qol, which means both “voice” and “thunder.” This is why some commentators give this text the title “psalm of the seven thunders”—for the number of times the word resounds in it. In fact, the psalmist can be said to conceive of thunder as a symbol of the divine voice which, in its transcendent and unattainable mystery, breaks into the created world to the point of shaking and terrifying it, though in its inner meaning it is a word of peace and harmony. One's thoughts go to chapter 12 of the fourth Gospel, where the voice that answers Jesus from heaven is perceived by the crowd as thunder (see John 12:28-29).
By putting Psalm 29 before us for Morning Prayer (Lauds), the Liturgy of the Hours invites us to adopt an attitude of deep and trusting adoration of God's majesty.
Chaos and Terror
The biblical cantor leads us to two moments and places. At the center (verses 3-9) is the depiction of the storm, which is unleashed from the “immensity of waters” of the Mediterranean. To the eyes of biblical man, the seawaters embody the chaos that assaults the beauty and splendor of creation until it corrodes, destroys and breaks it down. By observing the raging storm, then, one discovers the immense power of God. One praying the psalm sees the hurricane moving northwards and striking land. The towering cedars of Mt. Lebanon and Mt. Sirion (sometimes called Hermon) are split by lightning bolts and seem to leap like terrified animals beneath the thunderclaps. The blasts come closer, cross over the entire Holy Land, and go down to the south, into the desert wilderness of Kadesh.
Peace and Adoration
Following this picture of intense movement and tension, we are invited to contemplate a contrasting scene, which is represented at the beginning and the end of the psalm (verses 1-2 and 9b-11). Alarm and fear are now offset by adoring glorification of God in the Temple of Zion.
There is almost a channel of communication joining the Jerusalem sanctuary and the heavenly sanctuary. In both these sacred places there is peace, and praise to divine glory rises upwards. The deafening sound of thunder yields to the harmony of liturgical song; terror is replaced by the certainty of divine protection. God now appears “enthroned over the flood” as “king forever” (verse 10)—namely, as the Lord and supreme Sovereign of all creation.
First Experience of God
Faced with these two contrasting pictures, one praying the psalm is invited to undergo a twofold experience. First of all, he must discover that the mystery of God expressed in the symbol of the storm cannot be captured and mastered by man. As the prophet Isaiah sings, the Lord breaks into history like lightning or a storm, sowing panic as he confronts the wicked and the oppressors. Before his judgment, proud adversaries are uprooted like trees struck down by a gale or cedars shattered by divine thunderbolts (see Isaiah 14:7-8).
What becomes evident in this light is what a modern thinker, Rudolph Otto, described as the “tremendum” of God—his ineffable transcendence and his presence as just judge in the history of humanity. Mankind suffers from the vain illusion that it can oppose his sovereign power. In the Magnificat, Mary too will exalt this aspect of God's action: “He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones” (Luke 1:51-52a).
Second Experience of God
The psalm, however, goes on to present us with another aspect of the face of God, one discovered in the intimacy of prayer and the celebration of the liturgy. It is, according to the aforementioned thinker, the “fascinosum” of God—the fascination which emanates from his grace, the mystery of love poured out on the faithful believer, the serene certainty of the blessing reserved for the just one. Even when faced with the chaos of evil, the storms of history and the very wrath of divine justice, one praying this psalm feels at peace, enveloped in the mantle of protection that Providence offers whoever praises God and follows his paths. Through prayer we know that the Lord's real desire is to give the gift of peace.
In the Temple, our anxiety is healed and our terror eliminated. We participate in the heavenly liturgy with all “the children of God,” angels and saints. And after the storm, as after the Flood which destroyed human wickedness, arches now the rainbow of divine blessing which recalls “the eternal covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon earth” (Genesis 9:16).
Thunder of the Gospel
This, above all, is the message that emerges in the “Christian” rereading of the psalm. If the seven “thunders” of our psalm represent God's voice in the cosmos, the highest expression of this voice was when the Father revealed Jesus' most profound identity as “beloved Son” in the theophany at his baptism (Mark 1:11 and parallel passages in Matthew and Luke).
St. Basil wrote, “Perhaps ‘the Lord's voice on the waters’ echoed—and more mystically—when a voice came from on high at Jesus' baptism and said, ‘This is my beloved Son.’ The Lord was indeed hovering over many waters then, sanctifying them with baptism. The God of glory thundered from on high with the strong voice of his testimony.… And you can understand ‘thunder’ as that change which occurs after baptism through the great ‘voice’ of the Gospel” (Homilies on the Psalms, PG 30, 359).
(Zenit and Register translation)