Papal Address at Wednesday General Audience

Psalm 23´s «Poetic and Prayerful Triptych»

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VATICAN CITY, JUNE 20, 2001 ( Here is a translation of John Paul II´s address at today´s general audience.

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1. The ancient canticle of the People of God, which we just heard, resounded in the temple of Jerusalem. To be able to understand clearly the theme of this hymn, it is necessary to keep in mind three of its fundamental assumptions. The first refers to the truth of creation: God created the world and is its Lord. The second refers to the judgment to which he subjects his creatures: W must come before him and be questioned about what we have done. The third is the mystery of God´s coming: He comes into the cosmos and history, and wants to have free access to establish a relation of profound communion with men. This is what a modern commentator has written: «These are three elementary forms of the experience of God and of the relation with God; we live by the work of God, before God and we can live with God» (Gerhard Ebeling, «Sui Salmi,» Brescia 1973, p. 97).

2. The three parts of Psalm 23 correspond to these three assumptions, which we will now try to go into in greater depth, considering them as three panels of a poetic and prayerful triptych. The first is a brief acclamation to the Creator, to whom the earth and its inhabitants belong (verses 1-2). It is a profession of faith in the Lord of the cosmos and of history. Creation, according to the ancient view of the world, is conceived as an architectural work: God establishes the foundation of the earth upon the sea, symbol of the chaotic and destructive waters, sign of the limitations of creatures, conditioned by nothingness and evil. Created reality is suspended over this chasm and it is the creative and provident work of God which preserves it in being and life.

3. From the cosmic horizon, the perspective of the Psalmist narrows down to the microcosm of Zion, «the mountain of the Lord.» We are now in the second picture of the Psalm (verses 3-6). We are before the temple of Jerusalem. The procession of the faithful asks the guards of the holy door an entrance question: «Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord, and who shall stand in his holy place?» The priests — as is the case in another biblical text called by scholars the «entrance liturgy» (see Psalm 14; Isaiah 33:14-16; Micah 6:6-8) — respond by listing the conditions to be able to accede to communion with the Lord in worship. This is not about merely ritualistic and external norms to be observed, but about moral and existential commitments to be practiced. It is almost an examination of conscience or penitential act that precedes the liturgical celebration.

4. The priest puts forward three requirements. Above all, it is necessary to have «innocent hands and a pure heart.» «Hands» and «heart» evoke action and intention, that is, the whole being of man, which must be radically turned toward God and his law. The second requirement is «not to tell lies,» which, in biblical language, not only refers to sincerity but especially to the struggle against idolatry, because idols are false gods, that is, «lies.» Thus, the purity of religion and worship, the first commandment of the Decalogue, is confirmed. Finally, the third condition, «does not swear deceitfully,» refers to relations with one´s neighbor. As is known, in an oral civilization like ancient Israel´s, the word could not be an instrument of deceit but, on the contrary, a symbol of social relations inspired by justice and rectitude.

5. Thus we come to the third picture, which describes indirectly the festive entry of the faithful into the temple to meet the Lord (verses 7-10). In a thought-provoking exchange of appeals, questions and answers, God reveals himself progressively with three of his solemn titles: «King of glory, strong and powerful Lord, Lord of the armies.» The doors of the Temple of Zion are personified and invited to raise their lintels to welcome the Lord who takes possession of his house.

The triumphal scene, described in the Psalm in this third poetic picture, was used by the Christian liturgy of the East and West to recall both the victorious descent of Christ into Hell, of which the First Letter of Peter speaks (see 3:19), and the glorious ascension of the risen Lord to Heaven (see Acts 1:9-10). The same Psalm is still sung by alternate choirs in the Byzantine liturgy on Easter night, as it was used by the Roman liturgy, at the end of the procession of palms, in the second Sunday of Passion. The solemn liturgy of the opening of the Holy Door during the inauguration of the Jubilee Year enabled us to relive with intense interior emotion the same sentiments experienced by the Psalmist when crossing the threshold of the ancient Temple of Zion.

6. The last title, «Lord of the armies,» does not have — as might appear at first sight — a martial character, even if it does not exclude a reference to Israel´s ranks. Instead, it is given cosmic value: The Lord, who is about to come to meet humanity in the interior of the restricted space of the shrine of Zion, is the Creator who has all the stars of heaven as army, that is, all creatures of the universe who obey him. One reads in the Book of the prophet Baruch: «The stars shone in their watches, and were glad, he called them and they said, ´Here we are!´ They shone with gladness for him who made them» (Baruch 3:34-35). The infinite God, omnipotent and eternal, adapts to the human creature, comes near to her to meet her, listen to her, and enter into communion with her. And the liturgy is the expression of this meeting in faith, dialogue and love.

[Translation by ZENIT]

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