Papal Address on Psalm 50(51)

John Paul II Highlights Joy of God’s Forgiveness

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VATICAN CITY, DEC. 4, 2002 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of John Paul II’s address at today’s general audience, which he dedicated to a meditation on part of Psalm 50(51), the Miserere.

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1. Every week the liturgy of lauds repeats Psalm 50[51], the famous Miserere. We have already reflected on some sections of it on other occasions. Now also, we will reflect in a particular way on a section of this grandiose imploration of forgiveness: verses 12-16.

First of all, it is significant to note that in the Hebrew original the word «spirit» is repeated three times, invoked of God as a gift and received by the creature repentant of his sin: «Renew in me a steadfast spirit. … Do not … take from me your holy spirit. … [S]ustain in me a willing spirit» (verses 12,13,14). One could say — taking recourse to a liturgical term, that it is an «epiclesi,» namely, a triple invocation of the Spirit who, as in creation hovered over the waters (see Genesis 1:2), now penetrates in the soul of the faithful infusing a new life and raising it from the reign of sin to the heavens of grace.

2. The Church Fathers in the «spirit» invoked by the Psalmist see the effective presence of the Holy Spirit. Thus, St. Ambrose is convinced that it is about the one Holy Spirit «that seethes with fervor in the prophets, was breathed [by Christ] in the apostles, was united to the Father and the Son in the sacrament of baptism» («Lo Spirito Santo» [The Holy Spirit], I, 4, 55: SAEMO 16, p. 95).

The same conviction is expressed by other Fathers, such as Didimus the Blind of Alexandria of Egypt and Basil of Caesarea in their respective treatises on the Holy Spirit (Didimus the Blind, «Lo Spirito Santo» [The Holy Spirit], Rome, 1990, p. 59; Basil of Caesarea, «Lo Spirito Santo» [The Holy Spirit], IX, 22, Rome, 1993, p. 117f.). And again St. Ambrose, observing that the Psalmist speaks of the joy that invades the soul once it has received the generous and powerful Spirit of God, comments: «The gladness and joy are fruits of the Spirit and the Sovereign Spirit is that on whom, above all, we are founded. Whoever, therefore, is reinvigorated with the Sovereign Spirit is not subjected to slavery, is not enslaved to sin, is not indecisive, does not wander here and there, is not uncertain in his choices but, standing on the rock, he is firm, his feet are not hesitant» («Apologia del Profeta David a Teodosio Augusto» [Apologia of the Prophet David to Theodosius Augustus], 15, 72: SAEMO 5, p. 129).

3. With this triple mention of the «spirit,» Psalm 50[51], after describing in the preceding verses the dark prison of guilt, opens on the luminous region of grace. It is an important turning point, comparable to a new creation: As at the beginning God breathed his spirit in matter and gave origin to the human person (see Genesis 2:7), so now the same divine Spirit re-creates (see Psalm 50[51]:12), renews, transfigures and transforms the repentant sinner, embraces him once again (see verse 13), and renders him a participant of the joy of salvation (see verse 14). Now the man, animated by the divine Spirit, undertakes the path of justice and love, as is said in another Psalm: «Teach me to do thy will, for thou art my God! Let thy good spirit lead me on a level path» (Psalm 142:10).

4. Having experienced this interior birth, the man of prayer becomes a witness; he promises God to «teach the wicked your ways» of goodness (Psalm 50:15), so that they, like the prodigal son, will be able to return to the house of the Father. In the same way, St. Augustine, after having experienced the dark paths of sin, then felt the need in his Confessions to witness to the freedom and joy of salvation.

Whoever has experienced the merciful love of God becomes an ardent witness, especially in confrontations with those who are still caught in the nets of sin. Let us think of the figure of Paul who, dazzled by Christ on the road to Damascus, becomes an intractable missionary of divine grace.

5. For one last time, the man of prayer looks at his dark past and cries out to God: «Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation» (verse 16). The «blood» to which he makes reference, is interpreted in various ways in Scripture. The allusion, put in the mouth of King David, makes reference to the killing of Uriah, husband of Bathsheba, the woman who was the object of the passion of the sovereign. In a more general sense, the invocation indicates the desire for purification from evil, from violence, from hatred always present in the human heart with dark and malicious force. Now, however, the lips of the faithful one, purified from sin, sing to the Lord.

The passage of Psalm 50[51], which we commented on today, ends in fact with the commitment to proclaim the «justice» of God. The term «justice,» which, as is often the case in biblical language, does not properly designate the punitive action of God in confrontations with evil, but, rather, indicates the rehabilitation of the sinner, because God manifests his justice by rendering sinners righteous (see Romans 3:26). God derives no pleasure from the death of the wicked, but wishes that he change his ways and live (see Ezekiel 18:23).

[Translation by ZENIT]

At the end of the general audience, the Holy Father gave the following summary in English:

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Psalm 50, the «Miserere,» is a heartfelt plea for God’s mercy and forgiveness. The Psalmist, acknowledging his sin, asks God to create in him a pure heart and grant him a steadfast spirit. «Do not deprive me,» he prays, «of your holy Spirit» (Psalm 50:13). The Church sees in these prophetic words a reference to the gift of the Holy Spirit, who sets us free from sin, makes us a new creation, and enables us to live in truth, justice, and love. The promise of this spiritual rebirth leads the Psalmist to bear joyful witness to the justice of God, who shows mercy to sinners and restores them to grace, freedom, and new life.

I welcome the members of the Japanese Buddhist group Rissho Kosei Kai. My greeting also goes to the student groups from Denmark and the United States. Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today’s Audience I cordially invoke God’s blessings of joy and peace.

[Original English text distributed by the Vatican Press Office]

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