At his Oct. 31 general audience, John Paul II borrowed language from the theater, a passion of his youth, to describe God's workings in human history. God is the “mysterious and invisible director” who moves “behind the scenes” to guide, protect and lead his people to salvation, the Pope said. “The certainty of God's providential action is a source of hope for the believer, who knows he can count on his constant presence.”
The Pope's reflections, addressed to some 12,000 pilgrims in St. Peter's Square, centered on a canticle from Isaiah 45. While this hymn of praise opens with the words, “Truly you are a hidden God,” it also underlines God's presence in the world by looking at what he has created and what he has done — and continues to do — for his people.
The teaching continued the Pope's yearlong series of meditations on the psalms and canticles of the Liturgy of the Hours.
“Truly with you God is hidden” (Isaiah 45:15). This verse introduces the canticle which is proposed for Friday Lauds during the first week of the Liturgy of the Hours. It is taken from Second Isaiah's meditation on the greatness of God, as shown in creation and in history. Here is a God who reveals himself, though remaining hidden in the impenetrability of his mystery. He is by definition “Deus absconditus,” the “hidden God.” No thought can encompass him. Man can only contemplate his presence in the universe, as if by following his footsteps, and fall prostrate in adoration and praise.
The historical background out of which this meditation emerges is the amazing deliverance that God secured for his people at the time of the Babylonian exile. Who would ever have thought that the exiled Israelites would be able to return to their homeland? Looking at Babylon's power, they could only have despaired. But now the prophet's words resound with the great announcement, God's surprise: as at the time of the Exodus, God will intervene. Then, he broke Pharaoh's resistance with terrible punishments; now, he is choosing a king, Cyrus of Persia, to defeat the power of Babylon and restore liberty to Israel.
The Whole World in His Hands
“Truly with you God is hidden, the God of Israel, the savior” (Isaiah 45:15). With these words, the prophet invites us to realize that God acts in history, even if he does not appear in the foreground. You might say that he is “behind the scenes.” He is the mysterious and invisible director who respects his creatures’ freedom, while at the same time holding the thread of world events. The certainty of God's providential action is a source of hope for the believer, who knows he can count on the constant presence of the One who is “maker of the earth who established it” (Isaiah 45:18).
In fact, the creative act is not an episode that disappears into the night of time — as if, after this beginning, the world should consider itself left on its own. God constantly brings into being the creation which has come from his hands. To acknowledge this is also to confess that God is unique: “Was it not I, the Lord, besides whom there is no other God?” (Isaiah 45:21). By definition, God is the only One. Nothing can compare with him.
Everything is subordinate to him. From this follows the repudiation of idolatry, against which the prophet pronounces severe words: “They are without knowledge who bear wooden idols and pray to gods that cannot save” (Isaiah 45:20). How is it possible to adore something man-made?
No Other Gods
To our modern sensitivities, perhaps the prophet's censure seems excessive — as if it is aimed against the images themselves, without any realization that they can be given a symbolic value compatible with spiritual adoration of the one true God. Surely, what is at play here is wise divine pedagogy: historically, through the strict discipline of banning images, Israel was protected against contamination from polytheistic influences. Once the face of God had been revealed in the incarnation of Christ, the Church acknowledged the possibility of using sacred images, at the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 787) — as long as they are understood in their essentially relational sense.
Nevertheless, this prophetic warning remains important. It opposes all the forms of idolatry, which are often hidden not so much in the improper use of images, but in the attitudes that consider people and things as absolute values and substitute them for God himself.
Everyone Is Invited
From the outpouring of creation, the hymn takes us to the terrain of history, where Israel was so often able to experience God's beneficial and merciful power, his faithfulness and provident care. In particular, the love of God for his people was manifested once again in their deliverance from exile. This happened in such a clear and surprising way that the prophet calls as witnesses the very “survivors of the nations.” He invites them to debate, if they can: “Come and assemble, gather together, you fugitives from among the gentiles” (Isaiah 45:20). The prophet comes to the conclusion that the intervention of the God of Israel is indisputable.
The creation of the world is not an episode that disappears into the night of time.
Then there emerges a magnificent universal perspective. God proclaims: “Turn to me and be safe, all you ends of the earth, for I am God; there is no other” (Isaiah 45:22). It thus becomes clear that the predilection with which God has chosen Israel as his people is not an act that excludes. Rather, it is an act of love from which all humanity is destined to benefit.
In this way, there is already sketched out in the Old Testament the “sacramental” concept of the history of salvation. It does not view the special choice of the children of Abraham — and later of the disciples of Christ in the Church — as a privilege that “closes” and “excludes,” but as the sign and instrument of a universal love.
Praise and Proclaim!
The invitation to adoration and the offer of salvation concerns all peoples: “To me every knee shall bend; by me every tongue shall swear” (Isaiah 45:23). To read these words from a Christian perspective means to turn our thoughts to the full revelation of the New Testament, which points out in Christ “the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:9), so that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11).
Through this canticle, our morning praise expands to the dimensions of the universe and also gives voice to all those who have not yet had the grace to know Christ. It is a praise that becomes “missionary,” driving us to go everywhere and proclaiming that God has revealed himself in Jesus as the Savior of the world.