VATICAN CITY, SEPT. 10, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address John Paul II gave at today’s general audience, which he dedicated to reflect on the canticle of Ezekiel 36:24-28.
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1. The canticle that has just resounded in our ears and hearts was composed by one of the great prophets of Israel. It is Ezekiel, witness of one of the most tragic periods lived by the Jewish people: the collapse of the kingdom of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem, followed by the bitter experience of the Babylonian exile (sixth century B.C.). The passage, taken from Chapter 36 of Ezekiel, has become part of the Christian prayer of lauds.
The context of this page, which has become a hymn of the liturgy, tries to penetrate the profound sense of the tragedy lived by the people in those years. The sin of idolatry had contaminated the land given in inheritance by the Lord to Israel. This, more than any other cause, was responsible, in the last analysis, for the loss of the homeland and the dispersion among the nations. God, in fact, is not indifferent before good and evil; he enters mysteriously the scene of human history with his judgment which, sooner or later, will unmask evil, defend the victims, and indicate the way of justice.
2. However, the object of God’s action is never ruin, pure and simple condemnation, the annihilation of the sinner. It is the prophet Ezekiel himself who refers to these divine words: “Do I indeed derive any pleasure from the death of the wicked? … Do I not rather rejoice when he turns from his evil way that he may live? … For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies, says the Lord God. Return and live!” (18:23,32). In this light, one can understand the meaning of our canticle, brimming with hope and salvation. After the purification through trial and suffering, the dawn of a new era is about to begin, which the prophet Jeremiah already announced when speaking of a “new covenant” between the Lord and Israel (see 31:31-34). Ezekiel himself, in Chapter 11 of his prophetic book, had proclaimed these divine words: “I will give them a new heart and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the stony heart from their bodies, and replace it with a natural heart, so that they will live according to my statutes, and observe and carry out my ordinances; thus they shall be people and I will be their God” (11:19-20).
In our canticle (see Ezekiel 36:24-28), the prophet takes up these divine words again and completes them with a amazing clarification: the “new spirit” given by God to the children of his people will be his Spirit, the Spirit of God himself (see verse 27).
3. What is announced, therefore, is not just a purification, expressed through the sign of water that cleanses the filth of the conscience. There is not only the aspect, though necessary, of deliverance from evil and sin (see verse 25). The accent of Ezekiel’s message is, above all, on another much more amazing aspect. Humanity, in fact, is destined to be born to a new existence. The first symbol is that of the “heart” which, in biblical language, refers to the inner self, to personal conscience. From our breast will be taken the “stony heart,” cold and insensitive, sign of obstinacy in evil. God will replace it with a “natural heart,” that is to say, a source of life and love (see verse 26). The vital spirit, which in creation rendered us living creatures (see Genesis 2:7), will be replaced in the new economy of grace by the Holy Spirit which sustains us, moves us, guides us toward the light of truth and pours out “the love of God in our hearts” (Romans 5:5).
4. Thus the “new creation” will arise, described by St. Paul (see 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15), when the death of the “old man,” of the “body of sin,” will be affirmed in us, as “we will no longer be slaves of sin” but new creatures, transformed by the Spirit of the risen Christ: “you have taken off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed, for knowledge, in the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:9-10; see Romans 6:6). The prophet Ezekiel announced a new people, which in the New Testament will be seen convoked by God himself through the work of his Son. This community of a “natural heart” and of an infused “spirit” will experience the living and operating presence of God himself, who will inspire believers, acting in them with his efficacious grace. “Those who keep his commandments,” St. John says, “remain in him, and he in them, and the way we know that he remains in us is from the Spirit that he gave us” (1 John 3:24).
5. Let us conclude our meditation on the canticle of Ezekiel by listening to St. Cyril of Jerusalem who, in his “Third Baptismal Catechesis,” perceives, in the prophetic page, the people of Christian baptism.
In baptism, he recalls, all sins are remitted, even the most serious transgressions. Because of this, the bishop addresses his listeners thus: “Have confidence, Jerusalem, the Lord will eliminate your iniquities (see Zephaniah 3:14-15). The Lord will cleanse your filth …; ‘he will sprinkle clean water upon you and you shall be clean from all your impurities’ (Ezekiel 36:25). The exultant angels surround you and will soon sing: ‘Who is that coming up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved?’ (Song of Songs 8:5) The soul, which before was a slave, is now free to call the Lord her adopted brother, who, accepting her sincere intention, says to her: ‘Behold, you are beautiful, my love, behold, you are beautiful!’ (Song of Songs 4:1). Thus he exclaims alluding to the fruits of a confession made with a good conscience. … May the heavens will that all … of you maintain alive the remembrance of these words and draw fruit them, translating them into holy works to present yourselves irreproachable before the mystical Spouse and obtain from the Father the forgiveness of sins” (No. 16: “Le catechesi” [The Catecheses], Rome, 1993, pp. 79-80).
[Translation by ZENIT]
[At the end of the audience, the Holy Father gave this summary in English:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
The canticle of the prophet Ezekiel which we have just heard is a song of hope for God’s People in exile. Because of idolatry, they were dispersed, but God will purify them from their sins and bring them back. He will create a new People from them and will give them a new heart and a new spirit, indeed, God’s own Spirit. With St. Paul we see here a prophecy of the “new creation” constituted by the believers who are guided by the Spirit of the risen Christ.
I offer a warm welcome to all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today’s audience, especially those from Latvia, Denmark, Ireland, Scotland, England and the United States. Upon all of you I cordially invoke joy and peace in our Lord Jesus Christ.