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Psalm 116 [114]

Catechesis by Blessed John Paul II
- in English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish
Vespers (Evening Prayer), Friday Week 2

Thanksgiving

1. In Psalm 116 that has just been proclaimed, the voice of the Psalmist expresses gratitude and love for the Lord after he has granted his anguished plea: "I love the Lord for he has heard the cry of my appeal; for he turned his ear to me in the day when I called him" (v1-2). This declaration of love is immediately followed by a vivid description of the mortal dread that has gripped the man in prayer.

The drama is portrayed through the symbols customarily used in the Psalms. The snares that enthral life are the snares of death, the ties that enmesh it are the coils of hell, which desire to entice the living of whom it can never have "enough".

2. The image is that of the prey which has fallen into the trap of a relentless hunter. Death is like a vice that tightens its grip. Behind the praying person, therefore, lurked the risk of death, accompanied by an agonizing psychological experience: "they caught me, sorrow and distress" (v3). But from that tragic abyss the person praying cried out to the only One who can stretch out his hand and extricate him from that tangle: "O Lord, my God, deliver me!" (v4).

This is the short but intense prayer of a man who, finding himself in a desperate situation, clings to the one rock of salvation. Thus, in the Gospel, just as the disciples cried out during the storm, so Peter cried to the Lord when, walking on the water, he began to sink.

3. Having been saved, the person praying proclaims that the Lord "is gracious... and just", indeed, he has "compassion" (Ps 116: 5). In the original Hebrew, the latter adjective refers to the tenderness of a mother whose "depths" it evokes.

Genuine trust always perceives God as love, even if it is sometimes difficult to grasp the course of his action. It remains certain, however, that "the Lord protects the simple hearts" (v6). Therefore, in wretchedness and abandonment, it is always possible to count on him, the "father of the fatherless and protector of widows" (Ps 68: 6).

4. A dialogue of the Psalmist with his soul now begins and continues in the following Psalm 116, which should be seen as a whole with our Psalm. The Judaic tradition created Psalm 116 as a single psalm, according to the Hebrew numbering of the Psalter. The Psalmist invites his soul to turn back, to rediscover restful peace after the nightmare of death.

The Lord, called upon with faith, stretched out his hand, broke the cords that bound the praying person, dried his tears and saved him from a headlong fall into the abyss of hell. Henceforth, the turning point is clear and the hymn ends with a scene of light: the person praying returns to the "land of the living", that is, to the highways of the world, to walk in the "presence of the Lord". He joins in the community prayer in the temple, in anticipation of that communion with God which awaits him at the end of his life.

5. To conclude, let us re-examine the most important passages of the Psalm, letting ourselves be guided by Origen, a great Christian writer of the 3rd century whose commentary in Greek on Ps 116 has been handed down to us in the Latin version of St Jerome. In reading that "the Lord has turned his ear to me", he remarks: "We are little and low; we can neither stretch out nor lift ourselves up, so the Lord turns his ear to us and deigns to hear us. In the end, since we are men and cannot become gods, God became man and bowed down, as it has been written: "He bowed the heavens, and came down' (Ps 18: 10)".

Indeed, the Psalm continues, "the Lord protects the simple hearts" (Ps 116: 6). "If someone is great and becomes haughty and proud, the Lord does not protect him; if someone thinks he is great, the Lord has no mercy on him; but if someone humbles himself, the Lord takes pity on him and protects him. Hence, it is said, "Behold, I and the children whom the Lord has given me' (Is 8: 18). And further, "I was helpless so he saved me'".

So it is that the one who is little and wretched can return to peace and rest, as the Psalm says, and as Origen himself comments: "When it says: "Turn back, my soul, to your rest', it is a sign that previously he did have repose but then he lost it.... God created us good, he made us arbiters of our own decisions and set us all in paradise with Adam. But since, through our own free choice, we pitched ourselves down from that bliss and ended in this vale of tears, the just man urges his soul to return to the place from which it fell.... "Turn back, my soul, to your rest, for the Lord has been good'. If you, my soul, return to paradise, it is not because you yourself deserve it, but because it is an act of God's mercy. It was your fault if you left paradise; on the other hand, your return to it is a work of the Lord's mercy. Let us also say to our souls: "Turn back to your rest'. Our rest is in Christ, our God."

JPII - General Audience, Wednesday 26 January 2005 - © Copyright 2005 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana

Prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord - Benedict XVI

(Evening Prayer) - in Croatian, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish
General Audience - 25 May 2005 - © Copyright 2005 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana

1. Psalm 116[115], which we have just prayed, has always been in use in the Christian tradition, beginning with St Paul who, citing the introduction of the Greek translation of the Septuagint, wrote to the Christians of Corinth: "Since we have the same spirit of faith as he had, who wrote, "I believed, and so I spoke', we too believe, and so we speak" (II Cor 4: 13).

The Apostle feels in spiritual harmony with the Psalmist, in serene trust and sincere witness, notwithstanding suffering and human weakness. Writing to the Romans, Paul takes up again verse two of the Psalm and highlights a difference between God who is faithful and man who is inconsistent: "God must be proved true even though every man be proved a liar" (Rom 3: 4).

The Christian tradition has read, prayed and interpreted the text in different contexts and thus all the wealth and depth of the Word of God appears, which opens new dimensions and new situations. Initially it was read above all as a text for martyrdom, but then in the peaceful Church it increasingly became a Eucharistic text because of the phrase "cup of salvation". In reality, Christ is the first martyr. He gave up his life in a context of hate and falsehood, but he transformed this anguish - and thus also this context - into the Eucharist: into a festive thanksgiving. The Eucharist is thanksgiving: "I will lift up the cup of salvation".

2. In the original Hebrew, Psalm 116 forms a single composition with Psalm 115, which it follows. Both are the same thanksgiving, directed to the Lord who frees from the nightmare of death, from contexts of hate and lies.

In our text the memory of a distressing past surfaces: the person praying has held high the torch of faith, even when on his lips played the bitterness of despair and unhappiness. Indeed, around him an icy curtain of hatred and deceit is being raised, as the neighbour shows himself to be false and unfaithful.

The supplication, however, is now transformed into gratitude because the Lord has remained faithful in this context of infidelity and has saved his faithful [servant] from the dark vortex of lies. So, this psalm is for us a text of hope, because even in difficult situations the Lord does not leave us, and therefore we must hold the torch of faith on high.

The person praying thus prepares to offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving, in which he will drink from the ritual chalice, the cup of sacred libation that is a sign of acknowledgement for having been freed, and find ultimate fulfilment in the Chalice of the Lord. Thus, the Liturgy is the privileged place to raise up acceptable praise to God the Saviour.

3. Indeed, explicit reference is made, other than to the sacrificial rite, also to the assembly of "all his people", in front of which the person praying fulfils his vows and witnesses to his faith. It will be in this circumstance that he will make his gratitude public, knowing well that, even when death is imminent, the Lord bends lovingly over him. God is not indifferent to the drama of his creature, but breaks his chains.

The person praying, saved from death, feels himself to be a "servant" of the Lord, "son of your handmaid" (ibid.), a beautiful Eastern expression to indicate one who has been born in the master's own household. The Psalmist humbly and joyfully professes his belonging to the house of God, to the family of creatures united to him in love and fidelity.

4. The Psalm finishes, always through the words of the person praying, by re-evoking the rite of thanksgiving that will be celebrated in the "courts of the temple". In this way, his prayer is situated in a community setting. His personal ups and downs are spoken of so that it will serve as an incentive for everyone to believe in and to love the Lord.

Therefore, we can perceive in the background the entire people of God as the person praying thanks the Lord of life, who does not abandon the righteous in the dark womb of suffering and death but leads them to hope and life.

5. We conclude our reflection by entrusting ourselves to the words of St Basil the Great who, in the Homily on Psalm 115, commented on the question and answer contained in the Psalm as follows: ""How shall I make a return to the Lord for all the good he has done for me? The cup of salvation I will take up'. The Psalmist has understood the multitude of gifts he has received from God: from non-existence he has been led into being, he has been formed from the earth and given the ability to reason... he then perceived the economy of salvation to be to the benefit of the human race, acknowledging that the Lord gave himself up to redeem all of us; and he hesitates, searching among all of the goods that belong to him for a gift that might be worthy of the Lord. "How then, shall I make a return to the Lord'? Not sacrifices nor holocausts... but my entire life itself. For this he says: "I will lift up the cup of salvation', giving the name "cup' to the suffering of spiritual combat, of resisting sin to the point of death; besides, that is what our Saviour taught us in the Gospel: "Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by'; and again to the Apostles: "Can you drink the cup I shall drink?', clearly symbolizing the death that he welcomed for the salvation of the world" (PG XXX, 109), thus transforming the sinful world into a redeemed world, into a world of thanksgiving for the life the Lord gives us.