Meditation on Passages from Psalm 117(118)

John Paul II Cites «an Awareness of Never Being Left Alone»

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VATICAN CITY, FEB. 12, 2003 ( Here is a translation of John Paul II’s address at today’s general audience, dedicated to comment on passages of Psalm 117(118).

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1. The sequence of Psalms from 112 to 117[118] was sung in all the most significant and joyful festivities of ancient Judaism, particularly in the celebration of the Passover. This series of hymns of praise and thanksgiving to God was called the «Egyptian Hallel,» because in one of them, Psalm 113 A, the exodus of Israel from the land of oppression, pharaonic Egypt, and the marvelous gift of the divine covenant is recalled in a poetic and almost visual way. Well, the last Psalm that seals this «Egyptian Hallel» is, precisely, Psalm 117[118], which we have just proclaimed and on which we already meditated in a previous commentary.

2. This song clearly reveals its liturgical use inside the temple of Jerusalem. As it unfolds, it seems to reveal a procession, which begins among the «tents of the victors» (verse 15), that is, in the houses of the faithful. The latter exalt the hand of divine protection, which is capable of protecting the one who is just and trusting, even when cruel adversaries invade. The image used by the Psalmist is expressive: «They surrounded me like bees; they blazed like fire among thorns; in the Lord’s name I crushed them» (verse 12).

Given this avoided danger, the people of God cry out in «joyful shout[s] of deliverance» (verse 15) in honor of «the Lord’s right hand [that] is raised [and strikes with power]» (see verse 16). Hence, there is an awareness of never being left alone at the mercy of the storm unleashed by the wicked. In truth, the last word is always that of God who, although he permits his faithful one to be chastened, does not give him over to death (see verse 18).

3. At this point it seems that the procession reaches the end evoked by the Psalmist through the image of «the gates of victory» (verse 19), namely, the holy door of the temple of Zion. The procession accompanies the hero to whom God has given victory. He requests that the gates be opened to him, so that he can «give thanks to the Lord» ([see] verse 19). With him, «the victors enter» (verse 20). To express the harsh trial he has overcome and the glorification that resulted from it, he compares himself to a «stone the builders rejected» that then «has become the cornerstone» (verse 22).

Christ himself will take on this image and verse, at the end of the parable of the murderous vinedressers, to announce his passion and glorification (see Matthew 21:42).

4. In applying the Psalm to himself, Christ opens the way to the Christian interpretation of this hymn of trust and gratitude to the Lord for his hesed, namely, for his loving faithfulness, which echoes throughout the Psalm (see Psalm 117[118]:1,2,3,4,29).

The Fathers of the Church adopted two symbols. First of all, that of the «gates of righteousness,» which St. Clement of Rome commented thus in his Letter to the Corinthians: «Many are the open doors, but the one of righteousness is in Christ. Blessed are all those who enter therein and direct their path in holiness and righteousness, doing everything tranquilly» (48,4: «I Padri Apostolici» [The Apostolic Fathers], Rome, 1976, p. 81).

5. The other symbol, linked to the preceding one, is precisely that of the stone. We will now allow ourselves to be guided in our meditation by St. Ambrose in his Exposition of the Gospel according to Luke. Commenting on Peter’s profession of faith at Caesarea Philippi, he recalls that «Christ is the stone» and that «Christ did not refuse this beautiful name to his disciple, so that he, too, would be Peter, and have in the stone the strength of perseverance, the indestructibleness of faith.»

Then Ambrose introduces the exhortation: You also make the effort to be a stone. But for this, do not seek the stone outside yourself but within yourself. Your stone is your actions, your stone is your thought. Your house is built on this stone, so that it will not be lacerated by any tempest of the evil spirits. If you are a stone, you will be inside the Church, because the Church is on the stone. If you are inside the Church, the gates of hell will not prevail against you» (VI, 97-99: «Opera Esegetiche» IX/II [Exegetical Works], Milan/Rome, 1978 = Saemo 12, p. 85).

[Translation by ZENIT]

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

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Psalm 117 recalls the years of oppression in Egypt and celebrates the protection which God gives to his people, even when they are besieged by cruel adversaries.

It is God who grants victory, and his people are invited to give him thanks as they enter through the doors of justice. By glorifying his Chosen One, God has made «the stone which the builders rejected … the cornerstone» (Verse 22). Christ applies this image to himself when he announces his passion and glorification. Thus we are able to interpret this hymn of trust and thanksgiving in a Christian perspective. As Saint Ambrose says, we too should strive to be a rock: a stone of action, word and faith founded on the true rock (Ad Cor 48:4).

May our hearts always remain steadfast in Christ our Cornerstone.

I extend a warm welcome to the English-speaking pilgrims present today, especially the groups from Thailand and the United States of America. Upon all of you and your families, I invoke the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

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