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Psalm 144 [143]

Catechesis by Benedict XVI
- in Croatian, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish
Vespers (Evening Prayer), Wednesday Week 4

Prayer of the King for victory and for peace - v 1-8

1. Our journey through the Psalter used by the liturgy of Vespers now comes to a royal hymn, Psalm 144, the first part of which has just been proclaimed: in fact, the liturgy divides this hymn into two separate sections.

The first part shows clearly the literary character of this composition: the Psalmist has recourse to citations of other texts of psalms, presenting them in a new project of song and prayer.

Precisely because the Psalm is of a later epoch, it is easy to imagine that the king who is exalted might no longer possess the features of the Davidic sovereign, since the Jewish royal house came to an end with the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century BC, but rather represents the shining and glorious figure of the Messiah, whose triumph is no longer an event of war or politics but an intervention of liberation from evil. The "messiah" - a Hebrew word that means "anointed one", as was a sovereign - thus gives way to the "Messiah" par excellence, who in the Christian interpretation has the Face of Jesus Christ, "son of David, son of Abraham".

2. The hymn opens with a blessing, that is, with an exclamation of praise addressed to the Lord, celebrated with a brief litany of saving titles: he is the rock, safe and sound, he is loving grace, he is the protected fortress, the stronghold of defence, liberation, the shield that keeps at bay any assault by evil. There is also the martial image of God who trains his faithful one for battle so that he will be able to face the hostilities of the environment, the dark powers of the world.

Before the all-powerful Lord, the person of prayer feels weak and frail, despite his royal dignity. He therefore makes a profession of humility that is formulated, as was said, with words from Psalms 8 and 39. Indeed, he feels like "a breath", similar to a fleeting shadow, ephemeral and inconsistent, plunged into the flow of time that rolls on and marked by the limitations proper to the human creature.

3. Here then, is the question: why does God care for and think about this creature who is so wretched and ephemeral?

This question elicits the great manifestation of the divine, the so-called theophany that is accompanied by a procession of cosmic elements and historical events, directed at celebrating the transcendence of the supreme King of being, of the universe and of history.

Here, mountains smoke in volcanic eruptions, lightning like arrows routs the wicked, here are the "mighty waters" of the ocean that are the symbol of the chaos from which, however, the king is saved by the action of the divine hand itself.

In the background remain the wicked who tell "lies" and swear false oaths: a practical depiction, in the Semitic style of idolatry, of moral perversion and evil that truly oppose God and his faithful.

4. Now, for our meditation, we will reflect initially on the profession of humility made by the Psalmist, and entrust ourselves to the words of Origen, whose commentary on our text has come down to us in St Jerome's Latin version.

"The Psalmist speaks of the frailty of the body and of the human condition" because "with regard to the human condition, the human person is nothing. "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity', said Ecclesiastes"

But the marvelling, grateful question returns: ""Lord, what is man that you manifested yourself to him?'... It is a great happiness for men and women to know their Creator. In this we differ from wild beasts and other animals, because we know we have our Creator, whereas they do not."

It is worth thinking a bit about these words of Origen, who sees the fundamental difference between the human being and the other animals in the fact that man is capable of recognizing God, his Creator, that man is capable of truth, capable of a knowledge that becomes a relationship, friendship. It is important in our time that we do not forget God, together with all the other kinds of knowledge we have acquired in the meantime, and they are very numerous! They all become problematic, at times dangerous, if the fundamental knowledge that gives meaning and orientation to all things is missing: knowledge of God the Creator.

Let us return to Origen. He says: "You will not be able to save this wretch that is man unless you take it upon yourself. "Lord.., lower your heavens and come down'. Your lost sheep cannot find healing unless it is placed on your shoulders... These words are addressed to the Son: "Lord, lower your heavens and come down'.... You have come down, lowered the heavens, stretched out your hand from on high and deigned to take our human flesh upon yourself, and many believed in you."

For us Christians God is no longer a hypothesis, as he was in the philosophy that preceded Christianity, but a reality, for God "lowered the heavens and came down". Heaven is God himself and he came down among us.

Origen rightly sees in the Parable of the Lost Sheep that the shepherd takes upon his shoulders the Parable of God's Incarnation. Yes, in the Incarnation, he came down and took upon his shoulders our flesh, we ourselves.

Thus, knowledge of God became reality, it became friendship and communion. Let us thank the Lord because he "lowered the heavens and came down", he took our flesh upon his shoulders and carries us on our journey through life.

The Psalm, having started with our discovery that we are weak and far from divine splendour, ends up with this great surprise of God's action: beside us, with us, is God-Emmanuel, who for Christians has the loving Face of Jesus Christ, God made man, God made one of us.

BXVI - General Audience, Wednesday 11 January 2006 - © Copyright 2006 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana

"Sing a new song!" - v 9-15

(Evening Prayer, Thursday, Week 4) - in Croatian, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish
General Audience - 25 January 2006 - © Copyright 2006 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana

The tone is still hymnal and entering into the scene is, also in the second movement of this Psalm, the figure of the "Anointed One", that is, the "Consecrated One" par excellence, Jesus, who draws everyone to himself to make of all "one." It is not by chance that the scene dominating the hymn is marked by prosperity and peace, symbols typical of the messianic era.

2. For this reason, the hymn is defined as "new", a term which, in biblical language, evokes not so much the exterior novelty of the words, as the ultimate fullness that seals hope. It sings, therefore, of the destination of history where the voice of evil, described by the Psalmist as "lies" and "perjury", expressions which indicate idolatry, will finally be silenced.

But this negative aspect is replaced by a more spacious positive dimension, that of the new world, a joyful one about to appear. This is the true shalom or messianic "peace", a luminous horizon that is articulated with a series of images drawn from social life: they too can become for us an auspice for the birth of a more just society.

3. It is above all the family that is founded on generations of young people. Sons, the hope of the future, are compared to strong saplings; daughters are like sturdy columns supporting the house, similar to those of a temple.

From the family we pass on to agriculture and farming, to the fields with its crops stored in the barns, with large flocks of grazing sheep and the working animals that till the fertile fields.

Our gaze then turns to the city, that is, to the entire civil society which finally enjoys the precious gift of public peace and order. Indeed, the city walls are never more to be "breached" by invaders during assaults; raids are over, that mean plundering and deportation, and finally, the "sound of weeping" of the despairing, the wounded, victims and orphans, the sad inheritance of war, is no longer raised.

4. This portrait of a different yet possible world is entrusted to the work of the Messiah and also to that of his people. Under the guidance of Christ the Messiah, we must work together for this project of harmony and peace, stopping war's destructive action of hatred and violence. It is necessary, however, to make a choice, choosing to be on the side of the God of love and justice.

It is for this reason that the Psalm ends with the words: "Happy the people whose God is the Lord" (v15). God is the Good of goods, the condition of all other goods.

Only a people that knows God and defends spiritual and moral values can truly go towards a profound peace and also become a strength of peace for the world and for others; therefore, together with the Psalmist they can sing the "new song", full of trust and hope.

Spontaneous reference is made to the new covenant, to the novelty itself of Christ and his Gospel. This is what St Augustine reminds us. Reading this Psalm, he also interprets the words: "I will play on the ten-stringed harp to you". To him, the ten-stringed harp is the law summed up in the Ten Commandments.

But we must find the right peg for these ten strings, these Ten Commandments. And only if these ten cords of the Ten Commandments - as St Augustine says - are strummed by the charity of the heart do they sound well.

Charity is the fullness of the law. He who lives the Commandments as a dimension of the one charity, truly sings the "new song". Charity that is united to the sentiments of Christ is the authentic "new song" of the "new man", able to create also a "new world".

This Psalm invites us to sing "on the ten-stringed harp" with a new heart, to sing with the sentiments of Christ, to live the Ten Commandments in the dimension of love and to thereby contribute to the peace and harmony of the world.