God's Presence Sustains Mankind

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Pope John Paul II met with 6,000 pilgrims during his general audience Dec. 3 as he continued his catechesis on the psalms and canticles of the Liturgy of the Hours' evening prayer. The Holy Father offered his reflections on Psalm 114, which portrays the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.

Psalm 114, the Pope noted, is a vivid reminder to Christians today that the same Lord who led Israel through the Red Sea to the Promised Land leads us by baptism to freedom from sin. He pointed out that the psalmist notes several unexpected events during Israel's flight from Egypt to illustrate God's love for his people, such as the water that poured forth from the rock at Meribah.

“God transforms the rock into a spring of water that becomes a lake: The basis for this mighty deed is his fatherly concern for his people,” John Paul said. “This gesture takes on, therefore, a symbolic meaning: It is a sign of the saving love of the Lord, who sustains and regenerates mankind as it journeys through the desert of unfolding history.”

The Pope ended his meditation by encouraging Christians to join together in listening to God in the silence of their hearts in order to recognize his law and the power of his voice.

The joyful and triumphant song we have just heard recalls Israel's flight from oppression at the hands of the Egyptians. Psalm 114 belongs to a collection of psalms that Jewish tradition calls the “Egyptian Hallel.” They include Psalms 113-118 and are a kind of booklet of songs that were used mainly in the Jewish Passover liturgy.

Christianity has adopted Psalm 114 with its Passover connotation, but it has also opened the way to a new interpretation derived from Christ's resurrection. Thus, the exodus this psalm celebrates becomes the image of a more radical and universal liberation. In Dante's Divine Comedy, the souls in purgatory intone this psalm in its Latin Vulgate version: “In exitu Israel de Aegypto/they all sang with one voice …” (Purgatory II, 46-47). He saw, then, in this psalm a song of hope and expectation of all those who are on the road toward that ultimate goal of communion with God in paradise after being purified of all their sin.

God's Special People

Let us now examine the thematic and spiritual development of this short prayer. At the beginning (see verses 1-2), it speaks about Israel's flight from oppression in Egypt until its entrance into the Promised Land, which is God's “holy place,” the place where he is present in the midst of his people. Indeed, the land and the people are fused together: Judah and Israel, expressions that were used to denote either the Holy Land or the Chosen People, are considered the seat of the Lord's presence, his special possession and inheritance (see Exodus 19:5-6).

After this theological description of one of the fundamental elements of faith in the Old Testament — God's people proclaiming his mighty deeds — the psalmist describes in greater spiritual and symbolical depth its main events.

The Red Sea of the flight from Egypt and the Jordan River of the entrance into the Holy Land are personified and transformed into witnesses and instruments that share in the deliverance the Lord had brought about (see Psalm 114:3, 5).

At the beginning of the psalm, during the exodus, it was the sea that parted in order to let Israel through, and, at the end of the journey through the desert, it was the Jordan that turned back from its course, thereby leaving its bed dry so the procession of the children of Israel might pass through (see Genesis 3-4). In the middle of the psalm, the experience in Sinai is recalled: The mountains now play a role in God's great revelation, which took place on their summits. Like living creatures such as the ram and the lamb, they tremble and skip. With a lively personification, the psalmist then asks the mountains and the hills why they are in such disarray: “Why is it, you mountains, that you skipped like rams? You hills, like lambs of the flock?” (Psalm 114:6). No mention is made of their response: It is given indirectly through a command that is later given to the earth to also tremble “before the Lord” (see verse 7). The disarray of the mountains and the hills was, therefore, a sudden, unexpected movement of adoration before the Lord, the God of Israel, an act of glorious exaltation before a transcendent and saving God.

The Lord's Saving Love

This is the theme of the final part of Psalm 114 (see verses 7-8), which introduces another significant event in Israel's journey through the desert — the water that gushes forth from the rock of Meribah (see Exodus 17:1-7; Numbers 20:1-13). God transforms the rock into a spring of water that becomes a lake: The basis for this mighty deed is his fatherly concern for his people. This gesture takes on, therefore, a symbolic meaning: It is a sign of the saving love of the Lord, who sustains and regenerates mankind as it journeys through the desert of unfolding history.

As we already know, St. Paul took this image, and, based on a Jewish tradition in which the rock accompanied Israel during its journey in the desert, reinterpreted this event in a Christ-centered light: “All drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank from a spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was the Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:4).

Listen to the Lord

Along these lines, the great Christian teacher Origen, in his commentary on the flight of the people of Israel from Egypt, thought of the flight that Christians carry out. He expressed it in the following words: “Do not think, therefore, that only Moses led the people out of Egypt: Now too, the Moses that we have with us … that is to say, God's law, will lead you out of Egypt; if you listen to it, it will carry you away from Pharaoh. … He does not want you to remain in the gloomy works of the flesh; he wants you to escape to the desert and find the place that is free from the anxiety and the troubles of this age; he wants you to attain peace and silence. … Therefore, when you come to this place of peace and silence, there you will be able to offer sacrifice to the Lord, there you will recognize God's law and the power of God's voice” (Omelie sull'Esodo, Rome, 1981, p. 71-72).

Drawing upon St. Paul's image which recalls the crossing of the sea, Origen goes on to say: “The apostle called this a baptism, which was fulfilled in Moses in the cloud and in the sea, so that you, too, who have been baptized into Christ in water and in the Holy Spirit, might know that the Egyptians are pursuing you and want to call you back into their service, namely in service to the rulers of this world and to the evil spirits of which you were first a slave. They will surely try to pursue you, but you descend into the water and escape unharmed, and, having washed away the stains of sin, you ascend like a new man ready to sing the new song” (Ibid, p. 107).

(Register translation)