Meditation on Psalm 118(119)

John Paul II on the Importance of Prayer at Start of Day

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VATICAN CITY, JAN. 15, 2003 ( Here is a translation of John Paul II’s reflection today during the general audience dedicated to a meditation on the 19th strophe of Psalm 118(119).

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1. In our already long journey through the Psalms that the liturgy of lauds proposes, we arrive at a strophe — the 19th to be precise — of the longest prayer of the Psalter, Psalm 118(119). It is a part of the immense alphabetical canticle: The Psalmist divides his work in 22 strophes, which correspond to the succession of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Each strophe has eight verses, which begin with Hebrew words all of which start with the same letter of the alphabet. The one which we have just heard is a strophe characterized by the Hebrew letter koph, which presents the man of prayer expressing his intense life of faith and prayer to God (see verses 145-152).

2. The invocation to the Lord is relentless, because it is a continual response to the permanent proposal of the Word of God. On one hand, in fact, the verbs of the prayer are multiplied: I cry to you, I call you, I cry for help, hear my voice. On the other hand, the word of the Lord is exalted that proposes decrees, teachings, the word, promises, judgment, the law, the precepts and testimonies of God. Together they form a constellation that is like the polar star of the faith and trust of the Psalmist. Therefore, the prayer reveals itself as a dialogue, which begins when it is already night and the dawn has yet to arise (see verse 147) and continues throughout the day, in particular in the difficulties of life. In fact, at times the horizon is dark and stormy: «Malicious persecutors draw near me; they are far from your teaching» (verse 150). However, the one who prays has an unbreakable certainty, the closeness of God with his word and his grace: «You are near, O Lord» (verse 151). God does not abandon the righteous one in the hands of persecutors.

3. At this point, once the simple but incisive message of the strophe of Psalm 118(119) has been delineated — a message suited for the beginning of a day — we will lean in our meditation on a great Father of the Church, St. Ambrose, who in his Commentary on Psalm 118(119) dedicates 44 paragraphs to explain precisely the strophe we just heard.

Taking up the ideal invitation to sing the divine praise from the early hours of the morning, he reflects in particular on verses 147-148: «I rise before dawn and cry out. … My eyes greet the night watches.» In this statement of the Psalmist Ambrose intuits the idea of a constant prayer, which embraces all times: «Whoever entreats the Lord, must act as though he is not aware of the existence of a particular time to dedicate to implore the Lord, but remains always in that attitude of supplication. Whether we eat, or drink, we proclaim Christ, pray to Christ, think of Christ, speak of Christ! May Christ always be in our heart and on our lips!» (Commentary on Psalm 118/2: Saemo 10, p. 297).

Referring then to the verses that speak of the specific moment of the morning and also alluding to the expression of the Book of Wisdom that prescribes to «give [God] thanks before the sunrise» (16:28), Ambrose comments: «It would be grave, in fact, if the rays of the rising sun were to surprise you lying lazily in bed with insolent impudence and if a stronger light wounded your sleepy eyes, still sunk in torpor. It is a disgrace for us to spend a very long time without the least practice of piety and without offering a spiritual sacrifice, during a night with nothing to do» (Ibid., op. cit., p. 303).

4. Then St. Ambrose, contemplating the rising sun — as he did in another of his famous hymns «during the cock’s crowing,» the «Aeterne rerum conditor,» included in the liturgy of the hours — counsels us thus: «Do you not know, perhaps, O man, that every day you owe God the first fruits of your heart and your voice? The harvest ripens every day; the fruit ripens every day. Run, then, to meet the rising sun. … The sun of justice wishes to be anticipated and does not expect anything else. … If you anticipate the rising of this sun, you will receive Christ as light. He himself will in fact be the first light that shines in the secret of your heart. He will be, precisely … who will make the light of morning shine for you in the hours of the night, if you will meditate on the words of God. While you meditate, the light rises. … Early in the morning hasten to church and in homage take the first fruits of your devotion. And then, if the affairs of the world call you, nothing will impede you from saying: «Meditating on your promises, my eyes anticipate the vigils of the night,» and with a good conscience you will betake yourself to your affairs. How beautiful it is to begin the day with hymns and songs, with the beatitudes that you read in the Gospel! How propitious it is that the word of the Lord should descend on you to bless you; that you, while singing, repeat the blessings of the Lord, that you be gripped by the need to practice some virtue, if you wish to perceive something within yourself that makes you feel worthy of that divine blessing!» (Ibid., op. cit., pp. 303.309.311.313).

Let us also respond to the call of St. Ambrose and every morning open our eyes on daily life, on its joys and worries, invoking God so that he will be close to us and guide us with his word, which infuses serenity and grace.

[Translation by ZENIT]

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

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In our catechesis on the Psalms used in the Liturgy of the Hours, we now discuss Psalm 118. Composed of twenty-two stanzas, corresponding to the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, the Psalm is a great celebration of God’s word as the source of wisdom, life, and truth. In the part used in Morning Prayer for Saturday, the Psalmist describes prayer as a continuous dialogue between God who speaks and the believer who responds with praise and petition. Among the Fathers of the Church, Saint Ambrose urges us to imitate the Psalmist’s example by praying constantly each day, from daybreak to the watches of the night.

I welcome the pilgrims from Saint Joseph’s Parish in Santa Ana, and the students from Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, California. Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today’s Audience, I cordially invoke God’s blessings of joy and peace.

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