Meditation on Psalm 50(51), the Miserere

Papal Address at General Audience

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VATICAN CITY, MAY 8, 2002 ( Here is a translation of John Paul II´s address at today´s general audience. The Italian-language address focused on Psalm 50(51).

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1. Every week on Friday, the liturgy of lauds recites the «Miserere» of Psalm 50[51], the most loved penitential Psalm, sung and meditated, a hymn raised to the merciful God by the repentant sinner. In a preceding catechesis, we had an occasion to present the general meaning of this great prayer. One enters first of all into the dark region of sin to be taken then to the light of human repentance and divine forgiveness (see verses 3-11). Then divine grace is exalted, which transforms and renews the spirit and heart of the repentant sinner: this is a luminous region, full of hope and trust (see verses 12-21).

We will take time in our reflection to consider some points on the first part of Psalm 50[51], reflecting at greater length on certain aspects. At the beginning, however, we wish to mention the wonderful divine proclamation of Sinai, which is almost a portrait of God sung in the «Miserere»: «The Lord, the Lord, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity, continuing his kindness for a thousand generations, and forgiving wickedness and crime and sin» (Exodus 34:6-7).

2. The initial invocation is raised to God to obtain the gift of purification that will render — as the prophet Isaiah said — «white as snow» and «as wool» sins which in themselves are like «scarlet» and «red like crimson» (see Isaiah 1:18). The Psalmist confesses his sin in a clear way and without hesitation: «For I know my offense. […] Against you alone have I sinned; I have done such evil in your sight» (Psalm 50[51], verses 5-6).

So the personal conscience of the sinner comes into play, clearly perceiving his evil. It is an experience that implies freedom and responsibility, and leads to admitting to having broken a bond in order to make an alternate choice in life with respect to the divine Word. It involves a radical decision of change. All this is implied in «acknowledging,» a verb that in Hebrew does not only include an intellectual adherence but a vital choice.

It is, unfortunately, that which many do not do, as Origen warns: «There are some who after having sinned are absolutely at peace and do not think of their sin, nor are they consumed by the awareness of the evil committed, but live as if it were nothing. These, of course, cannot say: My sin is always before me. When, instead, after sinning, one is consumed and afflicted by one´s sin, and is tormented by remorse, he is ceaselessly lacerated and endures assaults in his inner being that overwhelm him, such a one has good reason to exclaim: There is no peace for my bones given the nature of my sins. Therefore, when we put before the eyes of our heart the sins we have committed, we look at them one by one, we acknowledge them, are ashamed and are repentant of all that we have done then, justly overwhelmed and terrified, we say that there is no peace in our bones given the nature of our sins» (Homilies on the Psalms, Florence, 1991, pp. 277-279). Acknowledgment and awareness of sin is, then, the fruit of a sensitivity acquired thanks to the light of the Word of God.

3. In the confession of the «Miserere» there is a particularly marked emphasis: Sin is not only considered in its personal and «psychological» dimension, but above all it is delineated in its theological quality. «Against you alone have I sinned» (Psalm 50[51]:6), the sinner exclaims, to whom tradition has given David´s face, aware of his adultery with Bathsheba, and of the denunciation of the prophet Nathan against this crime and that of the murder of Uriah, her husband (see verse 2; 2 Samuel 11-12).

Hence, sin is not merely a psychological or social question, but is an event that damages the relation with God, violating his law, rejecting his plan in history, upsetting the scale of values, substituting «darkness for light and light for darkness,» namely calling «evil good and good evil» (see Isaiah 5:20). Beyond an eventual insult to man, sin is above all a betrayal of God. Emblematic are the words that the son prodigal of property pronounces before his father, prodigal of love: «Father, I have sinned against heaven — namely against God — and before you!» (Luke 15:21).

4. At this point the Psalmist introduces another aspect, more directly connected with the human reality. It is the phrase that has given rise to many interpretations and that has also been linked to the doctrine of original sin: «Truly, I was born guilty, a sinner, even as my mother conceived me» (Psalm 50[51]:7). The man of prayer wishes to indicate the presence of evil in the whole of our being, as is evident in the mention of conception and birth, a way to express the whole of existence, beginning from its origin. The Psalmist, however, does not formally link this situation to Adam´s and Eve´s sin, that is, he does not speak explicitly of original sin.

Nevertheless, it is clear that, according to the text of the Psalm, evil nests in man´s deepest being; it is inherent to his historical reality and because of this the request for the intervention of divine grace is decisive. The power of God´s love overcomes that of sin, the disruptive river of evil is less forceful than the fruitful water of forgiveness: «where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more» (Romans 5:20).

5. In this way the theology of original sin and the whole biblical view of sinful man are indirectly evoked with words that at the same time enable one to perceive the light of grace and of salvation.

As we will have the occasion to discover in the future when returning to this Psalm and its subsequent verses, confession of guilt and awareness of one´s own misery do not end in terror or in obsession of judgment but rather in the hope of purification, of deliverance, of the new creation.

In fact, God saves us «not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy, he saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the holy Spirit, whom he richly poured out on us through Jesus Christ our savior» (Titus 3:5-6).

[Translation by ZENIT]

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[At the end of the audience the Holy Father directed these words to English-speaking pilgrims}

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Psalm Fifty is the best known of the Penitential Psalms. The Psalmist confesses his sin and admits that he has done evil in God?s sight. While acknowledging his sinfulness, he never loses hope in God?s promise of mercy, love and forgiveness. This hope will find its definitive fulfilment in the liberating grace of Jesus Christ and the gift of his Holy Spirit.

I extend a special greeting to the young people of Toronto, gathered at the University to pray the Rosary in a Television link-up with the young people of the University La Sapienza in Rome. Dear Friends, I hope to see many Canadians at the World Youth Day. Coming together in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, you will commit yourselves to being the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today?s Audience, especially those from England, Norway, Sweden, India, South Korea, Canada and the United States of America, I invoke the joy and peace of the Risen Saviour.

[Original text: English; distributed by Vatican Press Office]

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