More than 20,000 people participated in Pope Benedict XVI’s final general audience of 2005 in St. Peter’s Square on Dec. 28. The Holy Father commented on the second half of Psalm 139 in his ongoing series of meditation on the psalms and canticles of the Liturgy of the Hours.
Whereas the first part of the psalm focuses on God, who is all-knowing and all-powerful, the second half of the psalm focuses on man as the masterpiece of God’s creation. Pope Benedict pointed out that the psalmist uses classical biblical images such as the potter and the clay and the transcendent grandeur of God’s knowledge, which knows not only the past and the present but what the future holds for mankind.
“In this psalm, the idea that God can foresee the future of the yet ‘unformed’ embryo is extremely powerful,” he said. “God has already written down in the book of life the days that this creature will live and the works that he will accomplish during his life on earth.”
The Holy Father concluded by quoting St. Gregory the Great (540-604), who offered hope and encouragement even to those who struggle on their spiritual journey: “St. Gregory the Great’s messages become an invitation to hope that is extended to all people, even those who walk with difficulty on the path of spiritual and ecclesial life.”
During this general audience of Wednesday in the Octave of Christmas — the liturgical Feast of the Holy Innocents, we will resume our meditation on Psalm 139 which we read in prayer in two different parts during the Liturgy of the Hours’ evening prayer. After having reflected in the first part (see verses 1-12) on God, who is all-knowing and all-powerful, the Lord of existence and of history, this wisdom hymn of intense beauty and passion points us to the highest and most wonderful reality in the entire universe: man, described as one of God’s “wonderful works” (see verse 14).
This theme resonates deeply with the Christmas season, which we have been experiencing during these past few days as we celebrate the great mystery of the Son of God who became man for our salvation.
After reflecting on the Creator’s presence and gaze that encompasses the entire universe, in the second part of the psalm — on which we are meditating today — God’s loving gaze turns to the human being, considered to be full and complete from his beginning. He is as yet “unformed substance” in the mother’s womb. Some biblical scholars believe that the Hebrew word used here refers to the embryo, which is described in this sense as a small, curled up, oval being, on which, nonetheless, God’s loving eyes already fix their gaze.
In order to describe God’s work in the mother’s womb, the psalmist uses some classical biblical images, and the mother’s life-giving womb is compared to the “depths of the earth” (see verse 15).
First and foremost, there is the symbol of the potter and the sculptor, who “forms” or molds his artistic creation — his masterpiece — just as the Book of Genesis describes the creation of man: “The Lord God formed man out of the clay of the ground” (Genesis 2:7). Then there is the symbol of “knitting” that refers to how the skin, flesh and nerves are delicately “fashioned” onto the bones of the skeleton. Even Job emphasized these and other images in order to exalt the masterpiece that man is, even though he has been bruised and wounded by suffering: “Your hands have formed me and fashioned me. … Remember that you fashioned me from clay. … Did you not pour me out as milk and thicken me like cheese? With skin and flesh you clothed me, with bones and sinews knit me together” (Job 10:8-11).
In this psalm, the idea that God can foresee the future of the yet “unformed” embryo is extremely powerful. God has already written down in the book of life the days that this creature will live and the works that he will accomplish during his life on earth. Thus, the transcendent grandeur of God’s knowledge emerges once again, embracing not only mankind’s past and present, but even its future that still remains hidden.
St. Gregory the Great
We would now like to be guided by a meditation from St. Gregory the Great’s Homily on Ezekiel that is based on a phrase from the psalm that we commented on at the beginning: “Thy eyes beheld my unformed substance, in thy book they were written” (see verse 16). Upon these words this Pope and Father of the Church has constructed a very original and nuanced meditation regarding those within the Christian community who are the weakest in their spiritual journey. These people, even though they do not constitute the most perfect part of the Church’s spiritual edifice, “are still numbered there … by virtue of their desire. It is true that they are imperfect and small, yet insofar as they are able to comprehend, they love God and their neighbor and do not ignore the good they are able to accomplish. Even though they have not yet attained the spiritual gifts, both by opening their hearts to perfect works and ardent contemplation, nevertheless they do not shirk from loving God and their neighbor to the degree that they are able to do so. For this reason, it just so happens that even these people contribute to building up the Church even though they are in positions of less importance because, even if they are less educated in terms of doctrine, prophecy, the blessing of miracles and a complete disdain for the world, they stand, nonetheless, on a foundation of fear and love, finding their stability in these things” (2,3,12-13, Opere di Gregorio Magno, III/2, Rome, 1993, pages 79 and 81).
Thus, St. Gregory the Great’s messages become an invitation to hope that is extended to all people, even those who walk with difficulty on the path of spiritual and ecclesial life.