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Commentary on Psalm 110(111)

"The First Stage of Wisdom"

VATICAN CITY, JUNE 9, 2005 (Zenit) - Here is a translation of Benedict XVI's address at Wednesday's general audience, which he dedicated to reflect on Psalm 110(111).

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1. Today we feel a strong wind. The wind of sacred Scripture is symbol of the Holy Spirit. We hope that the Holy Spirit will enlighten us now in the meditation of Psalm 110(111), which we have just heard. In this Psalm we find a hymn of praise and thanksgiving to the Lord for his many benefits, which makes reference to his attributes and his work of salvation. Mention is made of "mercy," "graciousness," "righteousness," "power," "truth," "uprightness," "faithfulness," "covenant," "works," "wonders," including the "food" he provides and, at the end, his glorious "name," namely, his person. The prayer is, therefore, contemplation of the mystery of God and of the wonders he works in the history of salvation.

2. The Psalm begins with a word of thanksgiving which rises not only from the Psalmist's heart, but also from all the liturgical assembly (see verse 1). The object of this prayer, which includes the rite of thanksgiving, is expressed with the word "works" (see verses 2,3,6,7). They indicate the saving interventions of the Lord, manifestation of his "righteousness" (see verse 3), term that in biblical language indicates above all the love that generates salvation.

Therefore, the heart of the Psalm is transformed into a hymn to the covenant (see verses 4-9), to that intimate bond that unites God to his people and includes a series of attitudes and gestures. Mention is made of "mercy and graciousness" (see verse 4), in line with the great proclamation from Sinai: "The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness" (Exodus 34:6).

"Mercy" is the divine grace that envelops and transfigures the faithful, while "graciousness" is expressed in the Hebrew original with a characteristic term that refers to the Lord's maternal "viscera," even more merciful than that of a mother (see Isaiah 49:15).

3. This bond of love includes the fundamental gift of food and, therefore, of life (see Psalm 110[111]:5), which, in a Christian rereading, is identified with the Eucharist, as St. Jerome says: "As food he gave the bread descended from heaven: If we are worthy, let us eat!" ("Breviarium in Psalmos," 110: PL XXVI, 1238-1239).

Then there is the gift of the earth, "the lands of the nations" (Psalm 110[111]:6), which alludes to the great event of the Exodus, when the Lord revealed himself as the God of liberation. The central synthesis of this song is to be sought, therefore, in the theme of the special pact between the Lord and his people, as verse 9 states in a succinct way: "[You] ratified your covenant forever."

4. Psalm 110(111) is sealed at the end by the contemplation of the divine countenance, of the Lord's person, expressed through his holy and transcendent "name." Then, quoting a sapiential saying (see Proverbs 1:7;9:10;15:33), the Psalmist invites the faithful to cultivate "fear of the Lord" (Psalm 110[111]:10), the beginning of wisdom. Fear and terror are not concealed under this term, but earnest and sincere respect, which is the fruit of love, genuine and active adherence to the liberating God. And, if the first word of the song was thanksgiving, the last is praise: As the saving righteousness of the Lord "endures forever" (verse 3), so the gratitude of the Psalmist is incessant, it resounds in prayer "forever" (verse 10).

In sum, the Psalm invites us at the end to discover all the good things the Lord gives us every day. We see more easily the negative aspects of our life. The Psalm invites to see the positive also, the many gifts we receive, and so find gratitude, as only a grateful heart can celebrate worthily the liturgy of thanksgiving, the Eucharist.

5. At the conclusion of our reflection, we would like to meditate, with the ecclesial tradition of the first Christian centuries, on the last verse with its famous declaration reiterated elsewhere in the Bible (see Proverbs 1:7): "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Psalm 110[111]:10).

The Christian writer Barsanuphius of Gaza (active in the first half of the sixth century) commented it thus: "What is the beginning of wisdom if not to abstain from everything that is hateful to God? And in what way can one abstain, if not by not doing something without first having asked for advice, or not saying something that should not be said, or regarding oneself mad, foolish, contemptible and worthless?" ("Epistolario," 234: "Collana di Testi Patristici" [Collection of Patristic Texts], XCIII, Rome, 1991, pp. 265-266).

John Cassian (who lived between the fourth and fifth centuries) preferred to specify, however, that "there is a great difference between love, which lacks nothing and which is the treasure of wisdom and science, and imperfect love, called "beginning of wisdom"; the latter, containing in itself the idea of punishment, is excluded from the heart of the perfect to reach the fullness of love" ("Conferenze ai Monaci" [Conferences to Monks], 2,11,13: "Collana di Testi Patristici," CLVI, Rome, 2000, p. 29). Thus, in the journey of our life to Christ, servile fear which exists initially is replaced by perfect fear, which is love, gift of the Holy Spirit.

[At the end of the audience, the Holy Father read the following summary in English:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Our meditation today centers on Psalm 110, a hymn of praise and thanksgiving which contemplates the mystery of God and his marvelous works of salvation. These saving acts of the Lord manifest the justice, compassion and love which form the intimate and everlasting covenant he makes with his people.

The Psalmist invites us to respond to this covenant by contemplating God's holy name with the fear which is the first stage of wisdom. The term fear does not mean terror, but sincere respect for the Lord and genuine assent to the ways of God. Let us, too, raise our hearts to the Lord in thanks and praise!

[The Pope then greeted pilgrims in several languages. In English, he said:]

I extend a special welcome to the English-speaking pilgrims here today, including groups from England, Scotland, Australia and the United States of America. Thank you for the affection with which you greeted me. Upon all of you, I invoke the peace and joy of Jesus Christ our Lord!

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