Papal Address on Psalm 98(99)

God Is Both Close and Inaccessible, John Paul II Says

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VATICAN CITY, NOV. 27, 2002 ( Here is a translation of John Paul II’s address at today’s general audience, which he dedicated to a reflection on Psalm 98(99).

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1. «The Lord is king.» This acclamation, at the beginning of Psalm 98(99) that we have just heard, reveals its fundamental subject and characteristic literary genre. It is a lofty song of the people of God to the Lord, who governs the world and history as a transcendent and supreme sovereign. This reminds us of other similar hymns — Psalms 95-97, which have already been the object of our reflection — which the liturgy of lauds includes as an ideal morning prayer.

Indeed, as the faithful one begins his day, he knows that he is not abandoned to the mercy of blind and dark chance, nor given over to the uncertainty of his freedom, nor dependent on the decisions of others, nor dominated by the events of history. He knows that the Creator and Savior, in his grandeur, holiness and mercy, is above every earthly reality.

2. There are several hypotheses put forward by scholars on the use of this Psalm in the liturgy of the Temple of Zion. In any case, it has the character of a contemplative praise that rises to the Lord, seated in heavenly glory before all the peoples and the earth (see verse 1). And yet, God makes himself present in an area and in the midst of a community, namely, Jerusalem (see verse 2), showing that he is «God-with-us.»

The Psalmist attributes seven solemn titles to God in the first verses: He is king, great, exalted, awesome, holy, powerful, just (see verses 1-4). Further on, God is also presented with the qualification «patient» ([see] verse 8). Above all, emphasis is placed on the holiness of God: Indeed, thrice it repeats — almost in the form of an antiphon — that he is «holy» (verses 3,5,9). In biblical language, the term indicates, above all, divine transcendence. God is superior to us, and places himself infinitely above every one of his creatures. This transcendence, however, does not render him an impassive and strange sovereign: When he is invoked, he responds (see verse 6). God is he who can save, the only one who can free humanity from evil and death. Indeed, he [is a] «lover of justice» and «created just rule in Jacob» (verse 4).

3. The Church Fathers have reflected considerably on the subject of the holiness of God, celebrating the divine inaccessibility. However, this transcendent and holy God has come close to man. What is more, as St. Irenaeus says, already in the Old Testament he became «accustomed» to man, manifesting himself with apparitions and speaking through the prophets, while man «became accustomed» to God, learning to follow and obey him. What is more, in one of his hymns St. Ephrem emphasizes that through the Incarnation «the holy one made his dwelling in the womb (of Mary) in a corporeal way, now he makes his dwelling in the mind in a spiritual way» («Inni sulla Natività» [Hymns on the Nativity], 4, 130). Moreover, through the gift of the Eucharist, in analogy with the Incarnation, «the Dispenser of Life descended from on high to dwell in those who are worthy. After he entered, he made his dwelling with us, so we ourselves are sanctified in him» («Inni conservati in armeno» [Hymns Kept in Armenian], 47, 27.30).

4. This profound bond between «holiness» and closeness of God is also developed in Psalm 98(99). In fact, after having contemplated the absolute perfection of the Lord, the Psalmist recalls that God was in constant contact with his people through Moses and Aaron, his mediators, as well as Samuel, his prophet. He spoke and was listened to, he punished offenses but also forgave.

The sign of his presence in the midst of the people was «his footstool,» namely, the throne of the ark of the temple of Zion (see verses 5-8). The holy and invisible God, therefore, made himself accessible to his people through Moses the lawmaker, Aaron the priest and Samuel the prophet. He revealed himself in words and deeds of salvation and judgment, and was present in Zion through the worship celebrated in the temple.

5. We can say, therefore, that Psalm 98(99) is realized today in the Church, seat of the presence of the holy and transcendent God. The Lord has not withdrawn into the inaccessible area of his mystery, indifferent to our history and to our expectations. He «comes to govern the earth, to govern the world with justice and all the peoples with fairness» (Psalm 97[98]:9).

God came into our midst above all in his Son, making himself one of us to infuse his life and holiness in us. Because of this, we now approach God with trust, not terror. Indeed, in Christ we have the supreme holy priest, innocent, without stain. He «is always able to save those who approach God through him, since he lives forever to make intercession for them» (Hebrews 7:25). Our song, then, is full of serenity and joy: It exalts the Lord king, who dwells among us, wiping every tear from our eyes (see Revelation 21:3-4).

[Translation by ZENIT]

[The Holy Father later gave this short synopsis in English:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Psalm 98 praises the holiness of the Lord God and expresses the people’s confidence that God who is supreme, merciful, and holy stands above all earthly realities. While the Psalm acknowledges the transcendence of God, it also recognizes with thanksgiving the readiness of God to respond to man’s needs. Moses, Aaron, and Samuel all «invoked the Lord and he answered.» The bond between the «holiness» and «closeness» of God is manifested today in the Church. The holy and transcendent God works through the Church as she undertakes her saving mission in the world. With Christ in our midst we, too, turn to the Father, not with fear but with trust. In thanksgiving we «exalt the Lord our God and bow down before his holy mountain.»

I extend a special welcome to the English-speaking pilgrims present today, particularly the groups from the United States. I thank the Freedom High School Choir who have lifted up our hearts to the Lord with their song of praise. Upon all of you, I invoke the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

[Original English text released by Vatican Press Office]

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