General Audience Address on Psalm 42(43)

A Longing for God´s Holy Temple, John Paul II Says

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VATICAN CITY, FEB. 6, 2002 ( Here is a translation of John Paul II´s address on Psalm 42(43) given at today´s general audience. The address was in Italian.

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1. In a general audience some time ago, commenting on the Psalm that precedes the one we just sang, we said that it was closely related to the next Psalm. In fact, Psalms 41[42] and 42[43] are one single song, divided in three parts by the same antiphon: «Why are you downcast, my soul? Why do you groan within me? Wait for God, whom I shall praise again, my savior and my God» (Psalm 41[42]:6,12; 42[43]:5).

These words, which are like a soliloquy, express the Psalmist´s profound sentiments. He finds himself far from Zion, point of reference of his existence because it is the privileged place of the divine presence and of the worship of the faithful. Because of this, he feels the loneliness of incomprehension and even of aggression on the part of the impious, aggravated by the isolation and silence on the part of God. However, the Psalmist reacts against sadness with an appeal to confidence, which he directs to himself, and with a beautiful affirmation of hope: He is confident that he is still able to praise God, «salvation of my countenance.»

In Psalm 42[43], rather than just talking to himself as in the preceding Psalm, the Psalmist turns to God and entreats him to defend him against his adversaries. Taking up almost literally an invocation announced in the other Psalm (see 41[42]:10), the man of prayer this time effectively directs his desolate cry to God: «Why then do you spurn me? Why must I go about mourning, with the enemy oppressing me?» (Psalm 42[43]:2).

2. However, he feels at this point that the dark period of distance is about to end and expresses the certainty of his return to Zion to find the divine dwelling again. The Holy City is no longer the lost homeland, as was the case in the lament of the preceding Psalm (see Psalm 41[42]:3-4), instead it is the joyous goal, toward which he is moving. The guide in the return to Zion will be the «truth» of God and his «light» (see Psalm 42[43]:3). The Lord himself will be the final end of the journey. He is invoked as judge and defender (see verses 1-2). Three verbs mark his implored intervention: «Grant me justice,» «defend me,» «rescue me» (verse 1). They are like three stars of hope, which light up in the dark sky of trial and point to the imminent dawn of salvation.

St. Ambrose´s reading of this experience of the Psalmist is significant, applying it to Jesus praying in Gethsemane: «Do not marvel that the prophet says his soul was shaken, given that the Lord Jesus himself says: Now my soul is troubled. In fact, he has taken our weaknesses upon himself, even our sensibility, and this is why he was saddened unto death, but not because of death. A voluntary death, on which the happiness of all men depended, could not have caused sadness. So, he was saddened unto death, while waiting for the grace to carry it to fulfillment. This is reflected in his own testimony, when he says about his death: There is a baptism with which I must be baptized: and how anxious I am until it is accomplished! («The Remonstrances of Job and David,» VII, 28, Rome 1980, p. 233).

3. Now, continuing with Psalm 42[43], the longed-for solution is about to open before the Psalmist´s eyes: the return to the source of life and of communion with God. «Truth,» that is the loving fidelity of the Lord, and the «light,» namely the revelation of his goodness, are represented as messengers that God himself will send from heaven to take the faithful one by the hand and lead him toward the desired goal (see Psalm 42[43]:3).

Very eloquent is the sequence of stages in drawing closer to Zion and its spiritual center. First «the holy hill» appears, the hill where the temple and citadel of David are located. Then «the dwellings» appear on the scene, namely the sanctuary of Zion with all the varied spaces and buildings that make it up. Then «the altar of God» appears, the place of sacrifices and of the official worship of all the people. The last and decisive goal is the God of joy, the embrace, the intimate encounter with him, who at first was distant and silent.

4. At this point, everything becomes song, gladness, celebration (see verse 4). In the Hebrew original there is reference to the «God who is joy of my jubilation.» It is a form of Semitic speech that expresses the superlative: The Psalmist wishes to emphasize that the Lord is the source of all happiness, the supreme joy, the fullness of peace.

The Greek translation of the Septuagint has taken recourse, so it seems, to a term equivalent to the Aramaic that indicates youth and is translated «to God the joy of my youth,» thus introducing the idea of the freshness and intensity of joy that the Lord gives. The Latin Psalter of the Vulgate, which is a translation made from the Greek, says therefore: «ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.» Thus the Psalm was recited at the foot of the altar, in the preceding eucharistic liturgy, as an introductory invocation to the encounter with the Lord.

5. The initial lament of the antiphon of Psalms 41[42]-42[43] resounds for the last time at the end (see Psalm 42[43]:5). The man of prayer has not yet reached the temple of God, he is still overwhelmed by the darkness of the trial; but now before his eyes shines the light of the future encounter and his lips already experience the tone of the song of joy. At this point, the appeal is largely characterized by hope. In commenting on our Psalm, St. Augustine, in fact, observes: «Hope in God, he will respond to him whose soul is perturbed. … Meanwhile live in hope. Hope that is seen is not hope; but if we wait for that which we cannot see, it is thanks to patience that we wait for it (see Romans 8:24-25)» («Esposizione sui Salmi I,» Rome 1982, p. 1019).

The Psalm then becomes the prayer of the one who is a pilgrim on earth and still finds himself in contact with evil and suffering, but has the certainty that the end point of history is not an abyss of death, but rather a saving encounter with God. This certainty is even stronger for Christians, to whom the Letter to the Hebrew proclaims: «No, you have approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and countless angels in festal gathering, and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, and God the judge of all, and the spirits of the just made perfect, and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and the sprinkled blood that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel» (Hebrews 12:22-24).

[Translation by ZENIT]

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[At the end of the general audience, John Paul II read a summary of his address in English as follows.]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Psalm Forty-two is an expression of profound longing for God´s holy Temple, his dwelling-place among men. The Psalmist prays that he will be led to the Temple by God´s light and his truth. He knows that the Lord never forgets his faithful ones, even in the midst of their trials. Contemplating in hope the end of his journey, he breaks out into a fervent hymn of praise to «God, the God of my joy» (v. 4).

For Saint Ambrose, the experience of the Psalmist was shared by Jesus as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. Christ´s followers also sing this Psalm of hope and praise during their pilgrimage on earth. Dwelling amid evil and suffering, they know with absolute certainty that the goal of history is not the emptiness of death, but a joyful encounter with the God of our salvation.

I welcome all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today´s Audience, especially the members of the Apostolate for the Vietnamese in Diaspora. My warm greeting also goes to the pilgrims from the Diocese of Charleston. I thank the Choir from Saint John the Baptist Church for their praise of God in song. Upon all of you and your families I cordially invoke the grace and p
eace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

[text distributed by Vatican Press Office]

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