In Victory over Evil, the Lord Is Our Strength
BY Jim Cosgrove
December 16-22, 2002 Issue | Posted 12/16/01 at 1:00 PM
John Paul II offered a message of hope at his general audience Dec. 5. “Even in anguish, one must keep high the torch of confidence, because the Lord's powerful hand leads his faithful one to victory,” the Holy Father said, meditating on Psalm 118.
Speaking to some 10,000 pilgrims gathered in the Paul VI Audience Hall, the Pope continued his yearlong series of meditations on the psalms and hymns of the Old Testament that Christians pray in the Liturgy of the Hours.
He recalled Psalm 118's vivid images describing the believer's understandable fear: “The cruel adversaries are compared to a swarm of bees or a vanguard of flames that advances, reducing everything to ashes.”
“However,” John Paul said, “the reaction of the righteous, sustained by the Lord, is vehement: Three times he repeats: ‘In the Lord's name I crushed them.’”
The believer realizes, though, that his strength is in God and not in his own resources, the Pope clarified.
When Christians, in harmony with the psalmist of Israel, sing Psalm 118, they feel a distinct echo within themselves. This is because they discover, in this highly liturgical hymn, two phrases that resonate in the New Testament with a new tonality. The first is in verse 22: “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”
This phrase is quoted by Jesus, who, after telling the parable of the murderous vinedressers, applies it to his mission of death and glory (see Matthew 21:42). The phrase is also recalled by Peter in the Acts of the Apostles: “He is ‘the stone rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone.’ There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved” (Acts 4:11-12).
Cyril of Jerusalem comments: “We say the Lord Jesus Christ is one only, so that the sonship may be one; one only we say, so that you will not think that there is another. That is why he is called stone — not an inanimate stone cut by human hands, but the cornerstone — because whoever believes in him will not be disappointed” (La Catechesi, Rome, 1993, pp. 312-313).
The second phrase the New Testament takes from Psalm 118 is proclaimed by the crowd during Christ's solemn messianic entry into Jerusalem: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (Matthew 21:9; see Psalm 118:26). The acclamation is framed by a “Hosanna,” which takes up the Hebrew hoshioh no, “Save [us], we pray!”
At the root is God's powerful right hand, and certainly not the weak and uncertain hand of man.
Song of God's Fidelity
This splendid biblical hymn is part of a short collection of psalms, from 113 to 118, known as the “Passover Hallel” — namely, the psalms of praise used in Hebrew worship for Passover, and also for the principal feasts of the liturgical year. The processional rite can be considered as the theme of Psalm 118 — recited perhaps in songs alternating a soloist and a choir — against the background of the Holy City and its Temple. A beautiful antiphon begins and ends the text: “Give thanks to the Lord, who is good, whose love [or mercy] endures forever” (verses 1 and 29).
The word “love” or “mercy” translates the Hebrew word “hesed,” which refers to God's generous faithfulness to his people, who are joined to him by covenant and friendship. Three groups of people are instructed to sing of this faithfulness — the whole of Israel; the “house of Aaron,” namely the priests; and “those who fear God,” a term that indicates the faithful and, subsequently, also converts, namely, members of other nations who want to adhere to the law of the Lord (see verses 2-4).
Keep the Flame Alive
The procession seems to wind through the streets of Jerusalem, according to the reference to the “tents of the victors” (verse 15). In any case, a hymn of thanksgiving is raised (see verses 5-18) whose message is essential: Even in anguish, one must keep high the torch of confidence, because the Lord's powerful hand leads his faithful one to victory over evil and to salvation.
The sacred poet uses strong and vivid images: The cruel adversaries are compared to a swarm of bees or a wall of flames that advances, reducing everything to ashes (see verse 12). However, the reaction of the righteous, sustained by the Lord, is vehement. Three times he repeats: “In the Lord's name I crushed them.” The Hebrew verb highligts a battle that destroys evil (see verses 10,11,12). The reason is that at the root is God's powerful right hand — that is, his mighty work — and certainly not the weak and uncertain hand of man. It is because of this that the joy of victory over evil gives way to a highly evocative profession of faith: “The Lord, my strength and might, came to me as savior” (verse 14).
Cornerstone of Success
The procession seems to reach the Temple, “the gates of victory” (verse 19), namely the holy door of Zion. Here a second song of thanksgiving is intoned, which opens with a dialogue between the priests and the assembly who are asking to be admitted to worship. “Open the gates of victory; I will enter and thank the Lord,” says the soloist in the name of the processional assembly. Others, probably the priests, respond: “This is the Lord's own gate, where the victors enter” (verse 20).
After entering, the fathful can now sing the hymn of gratitude to the Lord, who offers himself in the Temple as a stable and safe “stone” on which to build the house of life (see Matthew 7:24-25). A priestly blessing descends upon the faithful, who have entered the Temple to express their faith, to raise their prayer, and to celebrate the liturgy.
In the End, Joy
The last scene that opens before our eyes is a joyful rite of sacred dances, accompanied by a festive waving of branches: “Join in procession with leafy branches up to the horns of the altar” (verse 27). The liturgy is joy, a festive encounter, an expression of the entire creation praising the Lord. The rite of branches recalls the Hebrew Feast of Booths, in memory of Israel's wandering in the desert, a feast which included a procession with palm, myrtle and willow branches.
This same rite, evoked in the psalm, is presented again to Christians at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, which is celebrated in the Palm Sunday liturgy. Christ is acclaimed with hosannas as the “son of David” (see Matthew 21:9) by the crowd “that had come to the feast … took palm branches and went out to meet him, and cried out: ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, [even] the king of Israel’” (John 12:12-13). In that festive celebration — which is, however, a prelude to the hour of Jesus’ passion and death — the earlier symbol of the cornerstone is fulfilled and understood in is full meaning, now acquiring a glorious paschal significance.
Psalm 118 encourages Christians to recognize in Jesus’ paschal event “the day the Lord has made,” in which “the stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” With this psalm they can therefore sing full of gratitude: “The Lord, my strength and might, came to me as savior” (verse 14). “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice in it and be glad” (verse 24).
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