Meditation on Canticle of Isaiah 66:10-14

John Paul II Reflects on God’s Maternal Love

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CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy, JULY 16, 2003 ( Here is a translation of John Paul II address at today’s general audience, which he dedicated to comment on the canticle of Isaiah 66:10-14. The address was in Italian.

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1. The hymn we just heard is taken from the last page of the Book of Isaiah, a song of joy dominated by the maternal figure of Jerusalem (see 66:11) and then by the loving care of God himself (see verse 13). Biblical scholars consider that this final section, open to a splendid and festive future, is the testimony of a subsequent voice, that of a prophet who celebrates the rebirth of Israel after the dark period of the Babylonian exile. We are, therefore, in the sixth century B.C., two centuries after Isaiah’s mission, the great prophet under whose name the whole of this inspired work is presented.

We will now follow the joyful flow of this brief canticle, which opens with three imperatives which are an invitation to happiness: “rejoice,” “exult,” “rejoice with her in joy” (see verse 10). This is a luminous theme found often in the last pages of the Book of Isaiah: the afflicted of Zion are gladdened, crowned, anointed with the “oil of gladness” (61:3); the prophet himself “rejoices fully in the Lord, his soul exults in God” (verse 10); “as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride so shall your God rejoice” over his people (62:5). In the page preceding the one that is now the object of our song and prayer, it is the Lord himself who participates in Israel’s happiness, which is about to be reborn as a nation: “There shall always be rejoicing and happiness in what I create; for I create Jerusalem to be a joy and its people to be a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem and exult in my people” (65:18-19).

2. The source and reason for this inner exultation is found in the new vitality of Jerusalem, risen from the ashes of ruin, which fell on it when the Babylonian army destroyed it. Mention is made, in fact, of her “mourning” (66:10), which is now left behind it.

As often happens in several cultures, the city is represented with feminine, even maternal, images. When a city is in peace, it is like a protected and safe womb; in fact, it is like a mother who nurses her children with abundance and tenderness (see verse 11). In this light, the reality that the Bible calls, with a feminine expression, “the daughter of Zion,” namely, Jerusalem, becomes again a mother-city that receives, nourishes and delights her children, namely, her inhabitants. On this scene of life and tenderness, then, the word of the Lord descends, which has the tone of a blessing (see verses 12-14).

3. God takes recourse to other images linked to fruitfulness. In fact, he speaks of rivers and torrents, that is, of waters that symbolize life, the luxuriance of vegetation, the prosperity of the earth and of its inhabitants (see verse 12). The prosperity of Jerusalem, its “peace” (shalom), generous gift of God, will ensure for its children a life surrounded by maternal tenderness: “you shall be carried in her arms, and fondled in her lap” (Ibid.) and this maternal tenderness will be the tenderness of God himself: “As a mother comforts her son, so will I comfort you” (verse 13). Thus the Lord uses the maternal metaphor to describe his love for his creatures.

Even earlier in the Book of Isaiah, a passage can be read which attributes a maternal profile to God: “Can a woman forget her infant, be without tenderness of the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you” (49:15). In our canticle, the words of the Lord addressed to Jerusalem end by taking up again the theme of inner vitality, expressed by another image of fruitfulness and energy: that of the fresh grass, image applied to bones, to indicate the vigor of the body and of existence (see 66:14).

4. At this point, in face of the mother-city, it is easy to extend our gaze to encompass the profile of the Church, fruitful virgin and mother. We conclude our meditation on reborn Jerusalem with a reflection of St. Ambrose, taken from his work “The Virgins”: “The Holy Church is immaculate in her marital union, fruitful in her births and virgin in her chastity, notwithstanding the children she generates. Therefore, we are born of a virgin, who conceived not by the power of man but by the power of the Spirit. We are born of a virgin not in physical pain but in the jubilation of the angels. Our virgin nourishes us not with milk from the body but with that of which the Apostle speaks, when he says that he nursed, in their tender age, the adolescent people of God.

“What married woman has more children than the Church? She is virgin by the holiness she receives in the sacraments and mother of peoples. Her fruitfulness is attested also by Scripture, which says: ‘For more numerous are the children of the deserted wife than the children of her who has a husband’ (Isaiah 54:1; Galatians 4:27). Our mother does not have a man, but a spouse, because both the Church in the peoples as well as the soul of each individual — immune from any infidelity, fruitful in the life of the spirit — without diminishing their modesty, are married to the Word of God as to an eternal spouse” (I,31: Saemo 14/1, pp. 132-133).

[Translation by ZENIT]

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

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today’s canticle from Isaiah presents an image of great hope. Jerusalem, which had suffered greatly under the Babylonians, is now blessed with a life of peace and prosperity, and looks forward to a fruitful future. The people thus rejoice and are glad, for they trust in the Lord who comforts and nourishes them, like a mother her baby.

For us, the Church is our mother. She feeds her numerous children with her spouse’s Word and the sacraments. Let us pray for the Church that she may always be faithful to her Lord.

I extend a special welcome to the English-speaking visitors and pilgrims here today, including groups from Scotland, Ireland, Saudi Arabia and the United States. May your visit to Castel Gandolfo and Rome deepen your love of the Church. Upon all of you I invoke the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Happy holidays!

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