On Psalm 136 (135)

«God Is; God Is Good, and His Mercy Is Eternal»

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VATICAN CITY, OCT. 19, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the Italian-language catechesis Benedict XVI gave today during the general audience held in St. Peter’s Square. The Pope today continued his catecheses on prayer with a reflection on Psalm 136 (135).

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Dear brothers and sisters,

Today I would like to meditate with you on a psalm that summarizes the whole of salvation history as recounted for us in the Old Testament. It is a great hymn of praise that extols the Lord in the manifold, repeated manifestations of His goodness throughout the course of human history; it is Psalm 136 — or 135 according to the Greco-Latin tradition.

A solemn prayer of thanksgiving known as the «Great Hallel,» this psalm is traditionally sung at the end of the Hebrew Passover meal, and was probably also prayed by Jesus during the final Passover celebrated with the disciples; the Evangelists seem in fact to allude to it in their annotations: «And when they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives» (cf. Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26). The horizon of praise thus illumines the difficult road to Golgotha. The whole of Psalm 136 takes the form of a litany marked by the refrain «for His steadfast love endures forever.»

Throughout this poetic composition, God’s many mighty deeds in human history are enumerated, as are His continual interventions on behalf of His people; and to each proclamation of the Lord’s saving action the antiphon responds with the fundamental motivation for praise: God’s eternal love, a love that, according to the Hebrew word employed, involves fidelity, mercy, goodness, grace and tenderness. This is the unifying reason for the entire psalm; it is always repeated in the same way, while His prompt and paradigmatic manifestations change: creation, the liberation of the exodus, the gift of land, the Lord’s constant and providential help for His people and for every creature.

After a threefold invitation to give thanks to the sovereign God (Verses 1-3), the Lord is extolled as He who alone does great wonders (Verse 4), the first of which is creation: the heavens, the earth and the great lights (Verses 5-9). The created world is not merely a set onto which God’s saving action enters; it is rather the very beginning of that marvelous action. With creation, the Lord reveals Himself in all His goodness and beauty; He involves Himself with life, revealing the good will from which every other saving action flows. And our psalm, echoing the first chapter of Genesis, summarizes the created world in its principle elements, laying particular stress upon the great lights: the sun, the moon, the stars — those magnificent creatures that govern the day and the night. The creation of the human being is not spoken of here, but he is always present; the sun and the moon are for him — for man — they are to mark time for man, putting him in relation with the Creator especially through the indication of liturgical times.

And, in fact, it is the feast of Passover that is recalled immediately after this when, passing on to God’s self-revelation in history, it begins with the great event of liberation from Egyptian slavery, of the Exodus — traced out in its most important elements: the liberation from Egypt by the plague that smote the Egyptians’ first-born; the departure from Egypt; the passage through the Red Sea, the journey through the desert and the entrance into the Promised Land (Verses 10-20). We are in the first moments of Israel’s history. God powerfully intervenes in order to bring His people into freedom; through Moses, His envoy, He makes Himself known to Pharaoh, revealing Himself in all his greatness and, in the end, He bends the Egyptians’ resistance with the terrible scourge of the death of their firstborn sons. Thus is Israel able to leave the land of slavery, with the gold of their oppressors (cf. Exodus 12:35-36) and «with raised hands» (Exodus 14:8) in the exultant sign of victory. 

The Lord acts with merciful power also at the Red Sea. Faced by an Israel who stands afraid at the sight of the Egyptians who pursue them, so much so that they regret having left Egypt (cf. Exodus 14:10-12), God, our psalm says, «divided the Red Sea in sunder […] made Israel pass through the midst of it […] and overthrew Pharaoh and his host» (Verses 13-15). The image of the Red Sea «divided» in two seems to evoke the idea of the sea as a great monster cut in two and thus rendered harmless. 

The Lord’s power conquers the peril of the forces of nature as well as that of the military forces set up by men: the sea, which seemed to block the way for God’s people, allows Israel to pass on dry ground — and then closes in upon the Egyptians, sweeping them away. The Lord’s «mighty hand and outstretched arm» (cf. Deuteronomy 5:15; 7:19; 26:8) are thus revealed in all their saving power: The unjust oppressor is conquered, swallowed up by the waters, while the People of God «pass through the midst of it» to continue on their journey toward freedom.

Our psalm now makes reference to this journey by calling to mind Israel’s long pilgrimage toward the Promised Land with a very brief phrase: «He led His people through the wilderness, for His steadfast love endures forever» (Verse 16). These few words summarize an experience that lasted 40 years — a decisive time for Israel, who in allowing itself to be guided by the Lord, learns to live by faith, in obedience and in docility to God’s law. They are difficult years marked by the harshness of life in the desert, but they are also happy ones — years of confidence in the Lord, of filial trust; it is the time of «youth» as the prophet Jeremiah defines it when speaking to Israel in the name of the Lord, with expressions full of tenderness and nostalgia: «I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown» (Jeremiah 2:2). The Lord, like the shepherd in Psalm 23 that we contemplated in another catechesis, guided His People for 40 years; He educated and loved them, leading them to the Promised Land and conquering even the resistance and hostility of enemy peoples who wanted to obstruct them on the way of salvation (cf. Verses 17-20).

In unfolding the «great wonders» enumerated by our psalm, we reach the moment of the decisive gift, through the fulfillment of the divine promise made to the Fathers: «He gave their land as a heritage, for His steadfast love endures forever; a heritage to Israel his servant, for His steadfast love endures forever» (Verses 21-22). In extolling God’s eternal love, the gift of land is now remembered, a gift which the people must receive without ever claiming it as their own possession — by living continually in an attitude of grateful acceptance. Israel received the land in which they live as an «inheritance» — a word that generally designates the possession of a good received from another; a right of propriety that refers specifically to a paternal inheritance. One of the prerogatives of God is that of «giving»; and now, at the end of the Exodus journey, Israel, the receiver of the gift, enters as a son into the Land of the promise fulfilled. The time of wandering — under tents, in a life marked by danger — is over. Now the blessed time of stability has begun — of joy in building their homes and in planting their vineyards, of living in security (cf. Deuteronomy 8:7-13). But it is also the time of temptation to idol-worship; of contamination with the pagans; of a self-sufficiency that makes them forget the Origin of the gift. For this reason, the psalmist mentions humiliation and the foe, a mortal reality in which the Lord, yet again, reveals Himself as Savior: «It is He who remembered us in our low estate, for His steadfast love endures forever; and rescued us from our foes, for His steadfast love endures forever» (Verses 23-24). 

At this point the question arises: How can we make this psalm our own, how can we make this psalm a part of our own prayer? What
frames this psalm at its beginning and its end is important: and this is Creation. Let us return to this point: Creation as God’s great gift from which we live, in which He reveals Himself in his goodness and greatness. Therefore, to regard creation as a gift of God is of interest to us all. 

Then follows salvation history. Naturally we can say: The liberation from Egypt, the time in the desert, the entrance into the Promised Land and then the other problems are very distant from us; they are not part of our history. But we must be attentive to the fundamental structure of this prayer. The fundamental structure is that Israel remembers the Lord’s goodness. In its history, there are so many dark valleys, so many passages through difficulty and death, but Israel remembers that God is good, and they can overcome in the dark valley — in the valley of death — because they remember. Israel remembers the Lord’s goodness and His power; that His mercy endures forever. 

And this is also important for us: remembering the Lord’s goodness. Remembering becomes the strength of hope. Remembering tells us: God is; God is good, and His mercy is eternal. And thus, remembering opens the road to the future — even in the darkness of a day, of a moment in time, it is the light and star that guides us. Let us, too, remember the good; let us remember God’s eternal, merciful love. Israel’s history is already part of our memory as well, of how God revealed Himself, of how He created for Himself a people to be His own. Then God became man, one of us: he lived with us, suffered with us, died for us. He remains with us in the Blessed Sacrament and in the Word. It is a history, a remembrance of God’s goodness that assures us of His goodness: His love is eternal. 

And then also, in these 2,000 years of the Church’s history, there is always — once again — the goodness of the Lord. After the dark period of the Nazi and Communist persecutions, God freed us. He showed us that He is good, that He has power and that His mercy endures forever. 

And, just as the presence of the memory of God’s goodness helps us and becomes a star of hope for us in our common, collective history, so also each of us has his own personal history of salvation, and we must truly treasure this history, keeping always in mind the great things He has also done in my life, so that we might trust: His mercy is eternal. And if today I am in the dark night, tomorrow He will free me, for His mercy is eternal.

Let us return to the psalm, for at the end, it returns to creation. The Lord, it says, «gives food to all flesh, for his steadfast love endures forever» (Verse 25). The prayer of the psalm concludes with an invitation to praise: «O give thanks to the God of heaven, for His steadfast love endures forever.» The Lord is a good and provident Father, who gives the inheritance to His children and bestows food upon all. The God who created the heavens and the earth and the great celestial lights, who enters into human history in order to bring salvation to all of His children, is the God who fills the universe with His good presence, taking care of life and giving us bread. The invisible power of the Creator and Lord, which the psalm extols, is revealed in the littleness and visibility of the bread that He gives us, and by which He makes us live. And thus, this daily bread symbolizes and summarizes God’s love as Father, and opens before us the New Testament fulfillment of that «bread of life,» the Eucharist, which accompanies us in our existence as believers, and anticipates the definitive joy of the messianic banquet of Heaven.

Brothers and sisters, the blessing and praise of Psalm 136 has led us to retrace the most important stages in the history of salvation, reaching all the way to the paschal mystery in which God’s saving action reaches its culmination. With grateful joy, let us therefore extol the Creator, Savior and faithful Father, who «so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life» (John 3:16). In the fullness of time, the Son of God was made man in order to give His life, to give salvation to each one of us, and He gives Himself as bread in the mystery of the Eucharist in order to make us enter into His covenant, which makes us His children. To such great heights do God’s merciful goodness and the sublimity of «His eternal love» attain.

I therefore wish to conclude this catechesis by making my own the words St. John writes in his First Letter, and which we must always keep present in our prayer: «See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are» (1 John 3:1). Thank you.

[Translation by Diane Montagna]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In our continuing catechesis on Christian prayer, we now turn to Psalm 136. Known as the Great Hallel, this Psalm is a great hymn of praise which was traditionally sung at the conclusion of the Passover meal. As such, it was probably sung by Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper (cf. Mt 26:30). The Psalm takes the form of a litany praising God’s mighty deeds in the creation of the world and in the history of Israel; each reference to God’s saving work is followed by the refrain: «For his steadfast love endures for ever». It is God’s faithful love, in fact, which is revealed in the ordered beauty of the universe and in the great events of Israel’s liberation from slavery and the pilgrimage of the Chosen People to the land of promise. As we sing this great litany of God’s mighty works, we give thanks that the depth of his steadfast and merciful love was fully revealed in the coming of his only-begotten Son. In Christ, we see clearly «what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God, for that is what we are» (1 Jn 3:1).

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I offer cordial greetings to all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today’s Audience, especially those from England, Norway, Nigeria, Australia, Indonesia and the United States. My greeting also goes to the members of Legatus visiting Rome on pilgrimage and to the group of Lutheran pilgrims from Iceland. I also welcome the group of Anglican seminarians taking part in a month of study in Rome. Upon all of you I invoke God’s blessings of joy and peace!

© Copyright 2011 – Libreria Editrice Vaticana

[The Holy Father concluded in Italian:]

Lastly, I greet the sick, the newly married and young people, especially the newly confirmed of the Diocese of Faenza-Modigliana who are being accompanied by their Bishop Claudio Stagni. Yesterday we celebrated the feast of St. Luke the Evangelist. May his love for Christ sustain you, dear sick, in accepting suffering in union with the divine Master; may he encourage you, dear newlyweds, to live the sacrament of matrimony in its fullness; and may he help you, dear young people, to cling with an ever greater conviction to the Word of salvation, so that you might joyfully witness to it among your peers. Thank you.

[Translation by Diane Montagna]
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