Meditation on Psalm 80(81)

God´s Last Word Is «Love and Forgiveness,» Says John Paul II

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VATICAN CITY, APRIL 24, 2002 ( Here is a translation of John Paul II´s address at today´s general audience. The main address was given in Italian.

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1. «Blow the trumpet at the new moon, at the full moon, on our solemn day» (Psalm 80[81]:4). These words of Psalm 80(81), which we have just proclaimed, recall a liturgical celebration according to the lunar calendar of ancient Israel. It is difficult to describe precisely the festival to which the Psalm refers; what is certain is that the biblical liturgical calendar, although beginning with the cycle of seasons and, therefore, of nature, is presented as solidly anchored in the history of salvation and, in particular, to the capital event of the exodus from Egyptian slavery, linked to the full moon of the first month (see Exodus 12:2,6; Leviticus 23:5). There, in fact, the liberating and saving God was revealed.

As verse 7 of our Psalm states poetically, God himself removed from the back of the Jewish slaves in Egypt the basket full of bricks needed for the construction of the cities of Pitom and Rameses (see Exodus, 1:11,14). God placed himself on the side of the oppressed people, and with his power removed and canceled the bitter sign of slavery, the basket of sun-baked bricks, expression of the forced labor to which the children of Israel were constrained.

2. Let us see now how this canticle of the liturgy of Israel develops. It begins with an invitation to feast, to song, to music: It is the official convocation of the liturgical assembly according to the ancient precept of worship, already established on Egyptian soil with the celebration of Passover (see Psalm 80[81]:2-6a). After this appeal, the voice of the Lord himself is raised through the saying of the priest in the temple of Zion, and these divine words will take up the whole of the rest of the Psalm (see verses 6b-17).

The discourse that is developed is simple and pivots around two poles. On one side is the divine gift of freedom, which was offered to oppressed and unhappy Israel: «In distress you called and I rescued you» (verse 8). Reference is also made to the support that the Lord gave Israel, when walking through the desert, namely, the gift of water at Meribah, in a context of difficulty and trial.

3. On the other side, however, the Psalmist introduces next to the divine gift another significant element. The biblical religion is not a solitary monologue of God, an action of his that is destined to be inert. Instead, it is a dialogue, a word followed by a response, a gesture of love that calls for acceptance. This is why much space is dedicated to God´s invitations to Israel.

Above all, the Lord invites [Israel] to the faithful observance of the first commandment, the foundation of the whole Decalogue, namely, faith in the only Lord and Savior and the rejection of idols (see Exodus 20:3-5). The address of the priest in God´s name is marked by the verb «to listen,» dear to the Book of Deuteronomy, which expresses the obedient adherence to the Law of Sinai and is a sign of the Israel´s response to the gift of freedom. Indeed, our Psalm repeats: «Listen, my people. … If only you will obey me, Israel! … But my people did not listen to my words; Israel did not obey me. … But even now if my people would listen» (Psalm 80[81]:9,12,14).

Only through faithful hearing and obedience can the people receive fully the gifts of the Lord. Unfortunately, God must attest with bitterness to the numerous infidelities of Israel. The road in the desert, to which the Psalm alludes, is full of these acts of rebellion and idolatry, which reached a climax in the representation of the golden calf (see Exodus 32:1-14).

4. The last part of the Psalm (see Psalm 80[81]:14-17) has a melancholic tone. In fact, God expresses a desire that up until now has not been satisfied: «But even now if my people would listen, if Israel would walk in my paths» (verse 14).

This melancholy, however, is inspired by love and linked to a lively desire to fill the Chosen People with goods. If Israel walked in the ways of the Lord, he would be able to give it victory immediately over its enemies (see verse 15), and feed it «with the finest wheat» and satiate it «with honey from the rock» (verse 17). It would be a joyful banquet of very fresh bread, accompanied by honey that seems to run from the rocks of the Promised Land, representing prosperity and total well-being, as is often repeated in the Bible (see Deuteronomy 6:3; 11:9; 26:9,15; 27:3; 31:20). In offering this wonderful perspective, the Lord evidently seeks to obtain the conversion of his people, a response of sincere and effective love to his generous love.

The divine offer is revealed in its fullness in the Christian reading. Indeed, Origen offers us this interpretation: The Lord «made them enter into the promised land; he fed them not with manna as in the desert, but with the wheat that fell on earth (see John 12:24-25), that has resurrected. … Christ is the wheat; he is also the rock that satiated the people of Israel with water in the desert. In the spiritual sense, he satiated it with honey, and not with water, so that all who believe and receive this food will taste honey in their mouth» (Homily on Psalm 80[81], n. 17: Origen-Jerome, 74 Homilies on the Book of Psalms, Milan, 1993, pp. 204-205).

5. As is always the case in the history of salvation, the last word in the contrast between God and the sinful people is never judgment and punishment but love and forgiveness. God does not wish to judge and condemn, but to save and deliver humanity from evil. He continues to repeat the words that we read in the Book of the prophet Ezekiel: «Do I indeed derive any pleasure from the death of the wicked? … Do I not rather rejoice when he turns from his evil way that he may live? … Why should you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Return and live!» (Ezekiel 18:23,31-32).

The liturgy becomes the privileged place in which to hear the divine appeal to conversion and to return to the embrace of God «merciful and gracious, … slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity» (Exodus 34:6).

[Translation by ZENIT]

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[At the end of the audience, the Holy Father summarized his address in English as follows.]

Dear Brothers and Sisters.

Psalm 80 is an invitation to a joyful liturgical festival, a celebration of Israel´s liberation from slavery, and a summons to renewed fidelity to the Covenant. Only by remaining faithful to God´s word and obeying his commandments will the Chosen People receive the freedom and prosperity for which they long. These gifts are represented by wheat and honey, symbols of the abundant fruits of the Promised Land. The Church reads these verses in the light of the salvation offered in Jesus Christ, the Lord of Life, who fulfills the hope of all who put their faith in him. In praying this Psalm, Christians hear God´s invitation to conversion and his offer of freedom and new life in the Risen Lord.

I am pleased to greet members of the Gregorian University Foundation from the United States of America. I also greet the pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Colombo in Sri Lanka. Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present in today´s Audience, especially those from England, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the United States, I cordially invoke the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

[text distributed by Vatican Press Office]

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