Benedict XVI's invitation during the Catechesis on Psalm 126
The history of the human being, even though it is marked by suffering, is a history of salvation. For this reason we must "always be open to hope and steadfast in faith in God", the Pope said to the faithful on Wednesday, 12 October , at the General Audience in St Peter's Square. The Holy Father was reflecting on Psalm 126, in the Greco-Latin numbering, 125. The following is a translation of his Catechesis, which was given in Italian.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In our previous Catecheses we have meditated on several Psalms of lamentation and trust. In today's Catechesis I would like to reflect with you on a Psalm with festive tones, a prayer that sings with joy of the marvels of God. It is Psalm 126 —125 according to the Greco-Latin numbering — which celebrates the great things the Lord has done for his people and continues to do for every believer.
The Psalmist, in the name of the whole of Israel, begins his prayer recalling the exalting experience of salvation: "When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy" (vv. 1-2a). The Psalm speaks of "restored... fortunes", in other words fortunes restored to their pristine, positive state. That is, it starts from a situation of suffering and need to which God responds by bringing about salvation and by restoring the praying person to his previous condition, which he actually enriches and improves. This is what happens to Job when the Lord gives back to him all that he had lost, redoubling it and bestowing upon him an even greater blessing (cf. Job 42:10-13), and it is what the People of Israel experience on returning to their homeland from the Babylonian Exile.
It is precisely with reference to the end of the deportation to a foreign land that this Psalm is interpreted: the words "restored the fortunes of Zion" are read and understood by Tradition as "bringing back the prisoners of Zion". In fact, the return from exile is a paradigm of every divine intervention of salvation, because the fall of Jerusalem and the captivity in Babylon were a devastating experience for the Chosen People, not only on the political and social levels, but also and especially on the religious and spiritual levels. The loss of the land, the end of the Davidic monarchy and the destruction of the Temple appear to be a denial of the divine promises and the people of the Covenant, dispersed among pagans, question themselves sorrowfully about a God who seems to have abandoned them.
Therefore, the end of the captivity and the return to the homeland are experienced as a wonderful return to faith, to trust, to communion with the Lord; it is a "restoration" of "fortunes" that also entails conversion of heart, forgiveness, rediscovered friendship with God, an awareness of his mercy and the renewed possibility of praising him (cf. Jer 29:12-14; 30:18-20; 33:6-11; Ezek 39:25-29). This is an experience of overflowing joy, of smiles and cries of exultation, so beautiful that they "were like those who dream".
Divine interventions often take unexpected forms that go beyond what the human being is able to imagine; here then is the wonder and joy that is expressed in the praise: "The Lord has done great things". It is what the nations say and what Israel proclaims: "then they said among the nations, 'the Lord has done great things for them'. The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad" (vv. 2b-
God works wonders in human history. In bringing about salvation he reveals himself to everyone as the powerful and merciful Lord, the refuge of the oppressed who does not forget the cry of the poor (cf. Ps 9:10, 13), who loves justice and the law and of whose love the earth is full (cf. Ps 33:5).
Therefore, in the face of the liberation of the People of Israel, all the peoples recognize the great and marvellous things that God does for his People and celebrate the Lord in his reality as Saviour.
And Israel echoes the proclamation of the nations and takes it up repeating it, but as the protagonist, the one for whom the divine action is intended: "The Lord has done great things for us", "for us", or even more precisely, "with us", in Hebrew, 'immanû, thereby affirming that privileged relationship which the Lord has with his chosen ones and which will reach its culmination and full manifestation in the name Emmanuel, "God-with-us", the name by which Jesus was called (cf. Mt 1:23).
Dear brothers and sisters, in our prayers we should look more often at how the Lord has protected, guided and helped us in the events of our life, and praise him for all he has done and does for us. We should be more attentive to the good things the Lord gives to us. We always see problems and difficulties and, as it were, do not want to recognize that there are beautiful things that come from the Lord. This attention, which becomes gratitude, is very important for us and creates a memory of goodness that also helps us in dark hours. God does great things and those who experience them — aware of the Lord's kindness with the attention of the heart — are filled with joy.
The first part of the Psalm ends on this festive note. Being saved and returning to the homeland from captivity is like being restored to life: liberation opens to smiles, but at the same time to the expectation of a fulfilment yet to be desired and asked for. This is the second part of our Psalm which says:
"Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negev! May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy! He that goesforth weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him" (vv. 4-6).
If at the beginning of his prayer the Psalmist celebrated the joy of a fortune already restored by the Lord, now instead he asks for it as something yet to be fulfilled. If one applies this Psalm to the return from captivity, this apparent contradiction could be explained by Israel's experience in history, of a return to a difficult homeland, only partial, which induces the praying person to implore a further divine intervention to bring about the full reinstatement of the people.
However, the Psalm goes beyond the purely historical factor, opening up to broader dimensions of a theological kind. The consoling experience of liberation from Babylon is nevertheless still incomplete, it has "already" happened but it is "not yet" marked by definitive fullness. Thus, while the prayer celebrates salvation received in joy, it opens to the expectation of complete fulfilment.
For this reason the Psalm uses special images which, in their complexity, refer to the mysterious reality of redemption in which are interwoven the gift received and yet to be expected, life and death, joy dreamed of and sorrowful tears.
The first image refers to the dried up springs in the desert of the Negev which the rains fill with rushing water that restores life to the parched land and makes it bloom anew. The Psalmist's request, therefore, is that the restoration of the fortunes of the people and the return from exile be like the roaring, turbulent waters, capable of transforming the desert into an immense sweeping expanse of green grass and flowers.
The second image moves from the arid, rocky hills of the Negev to the fields that the peasants cultivate for food. Here, in speaking of salvation, the experience that is renewed every year in the farming world is evoked: the difficult and stressful period of sowing and then the exuberant joy of the harvest. The sowing is accompanied by tears because what is sown could yet become bread, so that the sower exposes himself to a wait that is full of uncertainty: the peasant works, prepares the ground, and scatters the seed but, as the parable of the sower clearly illustrates, he does not know where this seed will fall, whether the birds of the air will eat it, whether it will take root, whether it will spring up or whether it will become an ear of wheat (cf. Mt 13:3-9; Mk 4:2-9; Lk 8:4-8).
Scattering the seed is an action of trust and hope; man's hard work is essential but it is then necessary to enter a powerless period of waiting, knowing full well that many factors will be crucial to the success of the harvest and that the risk of failure is always present. Yet, year after year, the farmer repeats his gesture and scatters his seed. And when it becomes an ear of wheat and the harvest ripens in the fields, then comes the joy of those who witness an extraordinary miracle. Jesus was thoroughly familiar with this experience and spoke of it to his followers. He said: "the kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed upon the ground, and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he knows not how" (Mk 4:26-27).
It is the hidden mystery of life, it is the marvellous "great things" of salvation which the Lord works in the human history but whose secret is unknown to human beings. When the divine intervention is manifest in its fullness it shows an uncontrollable dimension, like the torrents of the Negev, like the grain in the fields. The latter also evokes a disproportion typical of God's things: a disproportion between the effort of the sower and the immense joy of the harvest, between the anxiety of waiting and the pacifying vision of the full granaries, between the tiny seeds scattered on the ground and the great pile of sheaves turned gold by the sun. At the harvest, everything is transformed, the weeping is over, it has given place to shouts of exultation.
The Psalmist refers to all this in order to speak of salvation, liberation, the restoration of fortunes, the return from exile. The Babylonian captivity, like every other situation of suffering and crisis, with its painful darkness made up of doubt and of an apparent distance from God, in reality, our Psalm says, is like a time of sowing. In the mystery of Christ, in the light of the New Testament, the message becomes even more explicit and clear: the believer who passes through that darkness is like the grain of wheat that falls into the earth, that dies, but in order to bear much fruit (cf. John 12:24); or, to borrow another image dear to Jesus, it is like the woman who suffers in the travail of labour to be able to experience the joy of bringing forth a new life (cf. Jn 16:21).
Dear brothers and sisters, this Psalm teaches us that in our prayers we must always be open to hope and steadfast in faith in God. Our history, even if it is often marked by sorrow, by doubt, by moments of crisis, is a history of salvation and of the "restoration of... fortunes". Our every exile ends in Jesus and every tear is dried, in the mystery of his cross, in death transformed into life, like the grain of wheat that is broken down in the soil and becomes an ear of wheat. For us too this discovery of Jesus Christ is the great joy of God's "yes", of the restoration of our fortunes.
Yet, just as those who — having returned full of joy from Babylon — found an impoverished land laid waste, as well as the difficulty of sowing, and suffered, weeping, unsure as to whether, in the end, there really would be a harvest, so we too, after the great discovery of Jesus Christ — our life, the truth, the way — entering the ground of faith, the "land of faith", all too often find a dark, hard and problematic life, sowing with tears but certain that in the end Christ's light really gives us the great harvest.
Moreover we must even learn this in the dark night: not to forget that light exists, that God is already in the midst of our life and that we can sow with great trust because God's "yes" is stronger than all of us.
It is important not to lose this remembrance of God's presence in our life, this profound joy that God has entered our life, setting us free: it is gratitude for the discovery of Jesus Christ who has come to us. And this gratitude becomes hope, it is a star of the hope that gives us confidence, it is light, for the very trial of the sowing contains the beginning of new life, of the great and definitive joy of God.