Mankind Yearns for Victory Over Death
During his general audience with 15,000 people in St. Peter's Square on May 12, Pope John Paul II said pride and self-sufficiency are temptations in times of prosperity. He made his remark during a meditation on Psalm 30 as he continued his teachings on the psalms and canticles of the Liturgy of the Hours' evening prayer.
Psalm 30 is a song of thanksgiving for deliverance from death. In a series of contrasts, the psalm-ist describes his earlier anguish followed by his restoration to life, hope and freedom. This crisis has allowed him to move beyond the illusion of self-sufficiency to an abiding trust in the Lord, who is always faithful to his promises.
“This psalm shows us that we must never be seduced by the dark confusion of despair, when it seems that everything is lost,” the Pope noted. “We must not fall prey to the illusion that we can save ourselves with our own resources.”
John Paul said Psalm 30 is an encouragement never to despair of God's saving power, even in the face of death. “Nobody prays for help without recognizing his needs, nor does anybody believe he can keep what he has by trusting only in his own virtue,” he noted, citing a letter written by Fulgentius of Ruspe, a sixth-century bishop.
“The Old Testament expresses man's intense desire for God's victory over death,” he said. “This powerful desire was fully fulfilled by Christ's resurrection, for which we can never thank God enough.”
An intense yet gentle prayer of thanksgiving to God rises from the psalmist's heart after the nightmare of death has dissipated. This is the feeling that stands out most strongly in Psalm 30, which we have just heard, not only with our ears but, undoubtedly, also with our hearts.
This hymn of thanksgiving has remarkable literary qualities and is based on a series of contrasts that express in a symbolic way the Lord's deliverance. Thus, a contrast is made between the descent “down to the pit” and being “brought up from Sheol” (verse 4); God's “anger” that “lasts but a moment” is replaced by his “favor” that “lasts a lifetime” (verse 6); the “weeping” that comes at dusk is followed by “rejoicing” that comes at dawn (verse 6); “mourning” is changed into “dancing” and clothing made of “sackcloth,” a sign of mourning, is replaced by clothing of “gladness” (verse 12).
The night of death has passed away and a new day is dawning. It is for this reason that our Christian tradition sees this psalm as a paschal song. The opening quotation that is taken from John Cassian, a great monastic writer of the fourth century, and that is found in one edition of the liturgical text for evening prayer, attests to this: “Christ gives thanks to the Father for his glorious resurrection.”
Call Upon the Lord
The psalmist addresses the “Lord” repeatedly — no less than eight times — either to announce that he will praise him (see verses 2 and 13), to recall his cry unto the Lord during the time of his trial (see verses 3 and 9) and the Lord's liberating intervention (see verses 2, 3, 4, 8 and 12), or to call upon the Lord's mercy once again (see verse 11). In another passage, the psalm-ist invites the faithful to sing hymns to the Lord so as to give him thanks (see verse 5).
His feelings vacillate constantly between the terrible memory of the nightmare he experienced and the joy of his deliverance. Of course, the danger he has left behind is serious and it can still make him shudder, the memory of his past suffering is still clear and vivid, and the tears in his eyes dried up only a short while ago. But now it is the dawn of a new day; death has been replaced by the prospect of ongoing life.
Thus, this psalm shows us we must never be seduced by the dark confusion of despair when it seems everything is lost. Of course, we must not fall prey to the illusion that we can save ourselves with our own resources. Indeed, the psalmist is tempted by pride and self-sufficiency: “Complacent, I once said, ‘I shall never be shaken’” (verse 7).
A Call to Humility
The Fathers of the Church also reflected on this temptation, which creeps up during times of comfort, and saw trial as God's call to humility. For example, this is what Fulgentius, the bishop of Ruspe (467-532), says in his Epistle 3, which he wrote for a nun named Proba, when he comments on a passage of the psalm with the following words: “The psalmist confessed that at times he was proud to be healthy, as if it were one of his virtues, and thereupon was able to determine that very grave illness was a danger. In fact, he says: ‘Complacent, I once said, “I shall never be moved.”’ And for having said this, he was left without the support of God's grace. He was troubled as he was hurled into a state of illness and went on to say: ‘Lord, when you showed me favor I stood like the mighty mountains. But when you hid your face I was struck with terror.’ Moreover, in order to show that we must, nevertheless, ask for the assistance of God's grace humbly and incessantly (even though he already had it), the psalmist adds: ‘To you, Lord, I cried out; with the Lord I pleaded for mercy.’ However, nobody prays for help without recognizing his needs, nor does anybody believe he can keep what he has by trusting only in his own virtue” (Fulgentius of Ruspe, Le Lettere, Rome, 1999, p. 113).
After having confessed his temptation to pride during a time of prosperity, the psalmist recalls the trial that followed, saying to the Lord: “But when you hid your face I was struck with terror” (verse 8).
The psalmist then recalls the way in which he beseeched the Lord (see verses 9-11): He cried out and asked for help and prayed to be preserved from death, citing as a reason the fact that death is no advantage to God since the dead are no longer able to praise God and, having been abandoned by him, no longer have any reason to proclaim fidelity to God.
We find the same argument in Psalm 88, in which the psalmist, who is close to death, asks God: “Is your love proclaimed in the grave, your fidelity in the tomb?” (Psalm 88:12). Similarly King Hezekiah, who was gravely ill and then cured, says to God: “For it is not the netherworld that gives you thanks, nor death that praises you … The living, the living give you thanks” (Isaiah 38:18-19).
Man's Ultimate Desire
It is in this way that the Old Testament expresses man's intense desire for God's victory over death and refers to similar cases in which this victory was obtained: people threatened by death from starvation in the desert, prisoners that have escaped the death penalty, sick people who have been healed and sailors who have been saved from shipwreck (see Psalm 107:4-32). However, they were not the final victories. Sooner or later, death always managed to have the upper hand.
In spite of everything, the desire for victory always prevailed and, in the end, became the hope of resurrection. This powerful desire was fully fulfilled by Christ's resurrection, for which we can never thank God enough.
- May 23-29, 2004