Papal Address on Canticle of Jeremiah 14:17-21

Lamentation Asking God to Deliver His People from Famine and War

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VATICAN CITY, DEC. 11, 2002 ( This is a translation of the address John Paul II gave at today’s general audience in Paul VI Hall. It focused on the canticle of Jeremiah 14:17-21.

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1. It is a bitter and deeply felt song that the prophet Jeremiah raises to heaven from his historical horizon (14:17-21). We just heard it recited as an invocation, which the liturgy of the hours proposes for Friday, the day in which it commemorates the death of the Lord. The context from which this lamentation arises is represented by a scourge that frequently strikes the land of the Middle East: drought. However, to this natural drama the prophet adds another no less terrifying, the tragedy of war: «If I walk out into the field, look! those slain by the sword; if I enter the city, look! those consumed by hunger» (verse 18). The description is, unfortunately, tragically present in so many regions of our planet.

2. Jeremiah enters the scene with his face bathed in tears: He weeps uninterruptedly for «the daughter of his people,» namely for Jerusalem. Indeed, according to a well-known biblical symbol, the city is represented with a feminine image, «the daughter of Zion.» The prophet participates intimately in the «destruction» and «incurable wound» of his people (verse 17). Often his words are marked by sorrow and tears, because Israel does not allow itself to be led by the mysterious message that suffering brings with it. In another page, Jeremiah exclaims: «If you do not listen to this in your pride, I will weep in secret many tears; my eyes will run with tears for the Lord’s flock, led away to exile» (13:17).

3. The reason for the prophet’s lacerating invocation must be found, as I was saying, in two tragic events: the sword and famine, namely, war and want (see Jeremiah 14:18). We are, therefore, in a tormented historical situation and the portrait of the prophet and the priest, custodians of the Word of the Lord, is significant, who «forage in a land they know not» (Ibid.).

The second part of the Canticle (see verses 19-21) is no longer an individual lament, in the first person singular, but a collective supplication addressed to God: «Why have you struck us a blow that cannot be healed?» (verse 19). In addition to the sword and famine, there is, in fact, a greater tragedy, that of the silence of God, who no longer reveals himself and seems to be enclosed in his heaven, as though disgusted with human behavior. The questions addressed to him are, therefore, tense and explicit in a typically religious sense: «Have you cast Judah off completely? Is Zion loathsome to you?» (verse 19). Now they feel alone and abandoned, deprived of peace, of salvation, of hope. The people, left to themselves, find themselves lost and overcome by terror.

Is not this existential loneliness, perhaps, the profound source of so much dissatisfaction, which we also perceive in our days? So much insecurity and so many inconsiderate reactions, which have their origin in having abandoned God, the rock of salvation.

4. At this point, there is a great change: The people return to God and address an intense prayer to him. First of all, they recognize their own sin with a brief but deeply felt confession of guilt: «We recognize, O Lord, our wickedness, … that we have sinned against you» (verse 20). The silence of God, therefore, was provoked by man’s rejection. If the people convert and return to the Lord, God will also show himself ready to go out to meet and embrace them.

At the end, the prophet uses two fundamental words: «remembrance» and «covenant» ([see] verse 21). God is asked by his people to «remember,» namely, to take up again the line of his generous benevolence, manifested so many times in the past with decisive interventions to save Israel. God is asked to remember that he bound himself to his people through a covenant of fidelity and love. Precisely because of this covenant the people can be confident that the Lord will intervene to liberate and save them. The commitment he assumed, the honor of his «name,» the fact of his presence in time, «the throne of his glory,» impel God — after the judgment of sin and the silence — to come close to his people again and to give them again life, peace and joy.

Together with the Israelites, we too, therefore, can be certain that the Lord does not abandon us forever but, after every purifying trial, he returns to «let his face shine upon you, and be gracious … and give you peace,» as stated in the priestly blessing referred to in the Book of Numbers (6:25-26).

5. In conclusion, we can associate Jeremiah’s supplication with a moving exhortation addressed to the Christians of Carthage by St. Cyprian, bishop of that city in the third century. At a time of persecution, St. Cyprian exhorted his faithful to implore the Lord. This imploration is not identical to the supplication of the prophet, because it does not contain a confession of sins, since persecution is not a punishment for sin, but a participation in the passion of Christ. Nevertheless, it is an altogether urgent imploration, as was that of Jeremiah. «We implore the Lord, St. Cyprian says, in sincerity and concord, without ever ceasing to ask and confident of obtaining. Imploring him with moaning and weeping, as is fitting for those who are numbered among the unfortunate who weep and others who fear misfortune, among the many prostrated by the massacre and the few who remain standing. We pray that peace will soon be restored, that help will be given to us in our places of hiding and in dangers, may that which the Lord deigns to show his servants be fulfilled: the restoration of his Church, the certainty of our eternal salvation, good weather after the rain, light after darkness, peace and calm after the storm and turbulence, the merciful help of his father’s love, the grandeurs that we know of the divine majesty» («Epistula» 11, 8, in: S. Pricoco — M. Simonetti, «La Preghiera dei Cristiani,» Milan, 2000, pp. 138-139).

[Translation by ZENIT]

[At the end of the audience, the Holy Father gave this summary in English:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

The Canticle which we have just heard is a moving lamentation in which the Prophet Jeremiah calls on the Lord to deliver his people from the calamities of famine and war. Jeremiah’s supplication is a plea for God to remember the Covenant with his people and to save them.

The people, for their part, recognize their sin and cry out with humility and repentance to the Lord. They return to God, their Savior, who has not withdrawn from them his love and mercy. Thus the Lord remains always with his people, never abandons them, and renews their life.

I extend a special greeting to the Marist Brothers taking part in a program of spiritual renewal: may your time in Rome confirm you in your service of the Lord and his Church. Upon all the English-speaking visitors I invoke joy and peace in our Lord Jesus Christ, and I pray that this season of Advent will prepare you for a truly blessed celebration of Christmas.

[Original English text distributed by Vatican Press Office]

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