WEEKLY CATECHESIS 02.06.2005
In Psalm 116, which we have just heard, the psalmist expresses his grateful love to the Lord after the Lord responded to his intense prayer of supplication: “I love the Lord, who listened to my voice in supplication, who turned an ear to me on the day I called” (see verses 1-2). Immediately following this declaration of love, there is a vivid description of a dreadful nightmare that took a hold on the psalmist’s life (see verses 3-6).
This tragedy is portrayed in symbols that are typical of the psalms. The cords that entangle his life are the cords of death and the snares that torment him are the pangs of hell that unceasingly try to entice the living (see Proverbs 30:15-16).
The image is that of the prey that has fallen into the trap of the relentless hunter. Death is like a vise that tightens around him (see Psalm 116:3). The threat of death, which is accompanied by a painful psychological experience, weighs upon his shoulders: “I felt agony and dread” (see verse 3). However, from this tragic abyss, the anguished psalmist utters a cry unto the only one who can reach out and snatch him from the inextricable snare: “O Lord, save my life!” (see verse 4).
It is a brief yet intense prayer of a man in desperate straits who clings to his sole hope of salvation. In the Gospel, the disciples cried out in this same way during the storm (see Matthew 8:25) and Peter let out the same cry as he began to sink when he was walking on the sea (see Matthew 14:30).
Having been rescued, the psalmist proclaims that the Lord is not only “gracious and just,” but “merciful” as well (Psalm 116:5). In the original Hebrew text, the adjective “merciful” refers to a mother’s deepest instinct of tenderness.
Genuine trust always experiences God as love, even if it is at times difficult to understand what he is doing. Nevertheless, the fact that “the Lord protects the simple” is always certain. Therefore, even in the midst of misfortune and abandonment, a person can always count on the one who is the “father of the fatherless, defender of widows” (Psalm 68:6).
At this point, a dialogue begins between the psalmist and his soul, which continues throughout Psalm 116 in those versions where the psalms are numbered following the Jewish tradition. The psalmist invites his soul to find peace and serenity after his dreadful nightmare (see Psalm 116:7).
The Lord, upon whom the psalmist has called in faith, has extended his hand to him, broken the cords that ensnarled him, wiped away the tears from his eyes and saved him from his precipitous descent into the infernal abyss (see verse 8). There has been a clear turning point, and the hymn ends on a ray of light: The psalmist returns to “the land of the living”— to the paths of this world where he can walk “before the Lord.” He joins the community in prayer at the temple, a foretaste of the communion with God that awaits him at the end of his life (see verse 9).
In conclusion, we would like to examine once again the most important passages from this psalm, guided by a great Christian writer of the third century, Origen, whose commentary in Greek on Psalm 116 was transmitted to us by St. Jerome in a Latin text.
Upon reading that the Lord “turned an ear to me,” he made the following observation: “We are little and low, unable to stretch and raise ourselves on high. Because of this, the Lord inclines his ear and deigns to hear us. When all is said and done, given the fact that we are men and we cannot become gods, God became man and came down. As it is written: ‘He parted the heavens and came down’ (Psalm 18:10).”
Indeed, the psalm goes on to say, “The Lord protects the simple” (Psalm 116:6). “If a person is great and exalts oneself and is proud, the Lord does not protect that person. If a person thinks he is great, the Lord does not have mercy on him. But if a person humbles himself, the Lord has mercy on him and protects him. So much so that he says: ‘Look at me and the children whom the Lord has given me’ (Isaiah 8:18). Elsewhere he says: ‘When I was brought low, he saved me.’”
Thus, those who are little and poor can find peace and rest again, as the psalm says (see Psalm 116:7) and as Origen himself says: “When it says, ‘Return, my soul, to your rest,’ it is a sign that he had rest before but then lost it ... God created us good, made us judges over our decisions, and put all of us in paradise together with Adam. But then, by our free choice, we were flung from that bliss and ended up in this valley of tears. For this reason, the righteous man exhorts his soul to return to the place from which it fell ... ‘Return, my soul, to your rest: The Lord has been good to you.’ If you, my soul, return to paradise, it is not because you are worthy of it but because it is the work of God’s mercy. If you left paradise, it was by your fault; instead, your return is the work of the Lord’s mercy. Let us, too, say to our souls, ‘Return to your rest,’ for our rest is in Christ our God” (Origen-Jerome, 74 Omelie sul Libro dei Salmi, Milan, 1993, pages 409 and 412-413).
- February 6-12, 2005