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Commentary on Psalm 136(137)

"A National Hymn of Sorrow"

VATICAN CITY, DEC. 1, 2005 (Zenit) - Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave at today's general audience, which he dedicated to a reflection on Psalm 136(137).

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1. On this first Wednesday of Advent, a liturgical time of silence, watching and prayer in preparation for Christmas, we meditate on Psalm 136(137), which has become famous in the Latin version of its beginning, "Super flumina Babylonis." The text evokes the tragedy that the Jewish people lived through during the destruction of Jerusalem, which took place in the year 586 B.C., and the subsequent exile in Babylon. We are before a national hymn of sorrow, characterized by a dry nostalgia of what was lost.

This profound invocation to the Lord to liberate his faithful from the slavery of Babylon also expresses sentiments of hope and expectation of the salvation with which we have begun the Advent journey.

The first part of the Psalm (cf. verses 1-4) has, as a background, the land of exile, with its rivers and canals, which watered the plain of Babylon, headquarters of the deported Jews. It is as a symbolic anticipation of the extermination camps in which the Jewish people -- in the century that just ended -- were led to an infamous operation of death, which has remained as an indelible disgrace in the history of humanity.

The second part of the Psalm (cf. verses 5-6) is full of loving memories of Zion, the lost city, but which continues to be alive in the hearts of the deported.

2. Involved in the psalmist's words are the hand, tongue, palate, voice and tears. The hand is indispensable for the one who plays the lyre. But it has remained paralyzed (cf. verse 5) by sorrow because, moreover, the lyres have been hung on the willows.

The singer needs the tongue, but now it cleaves to his palate (cf. verse 6). The songs of Zion are the Lord's canticles (verses 3-4), they are not folkloric songs or performances. Only in the liturgy and in the freedom of a people can they rise up to heaven.

3. God, who is the ultimate arbiter of history, will be able to understand and accept, according to his justice, the cry of the victims, beyond the harsh tones that it sometimes acquires.

We want to commend to St. Augustine a further meditation on our psalm. In it, the Father of the Church introduces a surprising element of great timeliness: He knows that also among the inhabitants of Babylon there are people who are committed to peace and the good of the community, despite the fact that they do not share the biblical faith, that they do not know the hope of the Eternal City to which we aspire. They have a spark of desire for the unknown, for the greatest, for the transcendent, for a genuine redemption.

And he says that among the persecutors, among the nonbelievers, there are people with this spark, with a kind of faith, of hope, in the measure that is possible for them in the circumstances in which they live. With this faith in an unknown reality, they are really on the way to the authentic Jerusalem, to Christ. And with this opening of hope, valid also for the Babylonians -- as Augustine calls them -- for those who do not know Christ, and not even God, and who nevertheless desire the unknown, the eternal, he exhorts us not to look only at the material things of the present moment, but to persevere in the path to God. Only with this greater hope can we transform this world in a just way.

St. Augustine says it with these words: "If we are citizens of Jerusalem ... and we have to live on this earth, in the confusion of the present world, in the present Babylon, where we do not live as citizens but are prisoners, it is necessary that we not only sing what the Psalm says, but that we live it: This is achieved with a profound aspiration of the heart, fully and religiously desirous of the Eternal City."

And making reference to the "earthly city called Babylon," he adds: In it "there are people who, moved by love for it, contrive to ensure peace, temporal peace, without nourishing another hope in their hearts than the joy of working for peace. And we see them make every effort to be useful to the earthly society. However, if they are committed with a pure conscience in these tasks, God will not allow them to perish with Babylon, having predestined them to be citizens of Jerusalem, on the condition, however, that, living in Babylon, they do not seek pride, outdated pomp and arrogance. ... He sees their service and will show them the other city, toward which they must really long and orient all their effort" ("Esposizioni sui Salmi" [Commentaries on the Psalms] 136, 1-2: "New Augustinian Library," XXVIII, Rome, 1977, pp. 397, 399).

And let us pray to the Lord that he will awaken in all of us this desire, this openness to God, and that those who do not know God may also be touched by his love, so that all of us journey together toward the definitive City and that the light of this City might also shine in our time and in our world.

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

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Psalm 136, the subject of this week's catechesis, is a song of lamentation for the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Exile, a heartfelt prayer for liberation and an expression of longing for the Holy City.

Its evocation of Babylon as a place of slavery and sorrow can be seen as a symbolic foreshadowing of the horrors of the death camps of the last century, in which the Jewish people were destined for extermination.

In their grief, the exiles are no longer able to sing "the songs of the Lord," which can only rise up to God in freedom and in the setting of liturgical prayer.

During this Advent season, the Church reads this Psalm, with its plea for liberation and its nostalgic yearning for the Holy City, as an expression of her own prayerful hope for the Lord's coming.

As St. Augustine tells us, we are called not only to sing this Psalm, but to live it, by lifting up our hearts with profound religious longing for the heavenly Jerusalem.

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

I offer a warm welcome to the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present in today's audience, and in particular to the various student groups. May this Advent be for all of you a time of reflection, prayer and joyful expectation in preparation for the mystery of Christmas. Upon you and your families I cordially invoke God's abundant blessings of joy and peace.

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Pope Benedict XVI - Bishop of Rome, 661 869-1000

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Keywords

Psalm, Commentary, Advent, Pope, Sorrow

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