HUMAN HISTORY IS A HISTORY OF SALVATION – Psalm 126
VATICAN CITY, OCT. 12, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the Italian-language catechesis Benedict XVI gave today during the general audience held in St. Peter’s Square. The Pope today continued his catecheses on prayer with a reflection on Psalm 126.
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In the previous catecheses, we have meditated on a number of psalms of lament and of trust. Today, I would like to reflect with you on a notably joyous psalm, a prayer that sings with joy the marvels of God. It is Psalm 126 — according to Greco-Latin numbering, 125 — which extols the great things the Lord has done with His people, and which He continues to do with every believer.
The psalmist begins the prayer in the name of all Israel by recalling the thrilling 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” (Verses 1-2a).
The psalm speaks of “restored fortunes”; that is, restored to their original state in all their former favorability. It begins then with a situation of suffering and of need to which God responds by bringing about salvation and restoring the man who prays to his former condition; indeed, one that is enriched and even changed for the better. This is what happens to Job, when the Lord restores to him all that he had lost, redoubling it and bestowing upon him an even greater blessing (cf. Job 42:10-13), and this is what the people of Israel experience in returning to their homeland after the Babylonian exile.
This psalm is meant to be interpreted with reference to the end of the deportation to a foreign land: The expression “restore the fortunes of Zion” is read and understood by the tradition as a “return of the prisoners of Zion.” In fact, the return from exile is paradigmatic of every divine and saving intervention, since the fall of Jerusalem and the deportation into Babylon were devastating experiences for the Chosen People, not only on the political and social planes, but also and especially on the religious and spiritual ones. The loss of their land, the end of the davidic monarchy and the destruction of the Temple appear as a denial of the divine promises, and the People of the Covenant, dispersed among the pagans, painfully question a God who seems to have abandoned them.
Therefore, the end of the deportation and their return to their homeland are experienced as a marvelous return to faith, to trust, to communion with the Lord; it is a “restoring of fortunes” that involves a conversion of heart, forgiveness, re-found friendship with God, knowledge of His mercy and a renewed possibility of praising Him (cf. Jeremiah 29:12-14; 30:18-20; 33:6-11; Ezekiel 39:25-29). It is an experience of overflowing joy, of laughter and of cries of jubilation, so beautiful that “it seems like a dream.” Divine help often takes surprising forms that surpass what man is able to imagine; hence the wonder and joy that are expressed in this psalm: “The Lord has done great things.” This is what the nations said, and it is 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” (Verses 2b-3).
God performs marvelous works in the history of men. In carrying out salvation, He reveals Himself to all as the powerful and merciful Lord, a refuge for the oppressed, who does not forget the cry of the poor (cf. Psalm 9:10,13), who loves justice and right and of whose love the earth is filled (cf. Psalm 33:5). Thus, standing before the liberation of the People of Israel, all the nations recognize the great and marvelous things God has accomplished for His People, and they celebrate the Lord in His reality as Savior.
And Israel echoes the proclamation of the nations, taking it up and repeating it once more — but as the protagonist — as a direct recipient of the divine action: “The Lord has done great things for us”; “for us” or even more precisely, “with us,” in hebrew ‘immanû, thus affirming that privileged relationship that the Lord keeps with His chosen ones, and which is found in the nameEmmanuel, “God with us,” the name by which Jesus would be called, His complete and full revelation (cf. Matthew 1:23).
Dear brothers and sisters, in our prayer we should look more often at how, in the events of our own lives, the Lord has protected, guided and helped us, and we should 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 are always attentive to problems and to difficulties, and we are almost unwilling to perceive that there are beautiful things that come from the Lord. This attention, which becomes gratitude, is very important for us; it creates in us a memory for the good and it helps us also in times of darkness. God accomplishes great things, and whoever experiences this — attentive to the Lord’s goodness with an attentiveness of heart — is filled with joy. The first part of the psalm concludes on this joyous note. To be saved and to return to one’s homeland from exile are like being returned to life: Freedom opens up to laughter, but is does so together with a waiting for a fulfillment still desired and implored. This is the second part of our psalm, which continues:
“Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like the watercourses in the Negeb!
May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy!
He that goes forth weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
bringing his sheaves with him” (Verses 4-6).
If at the beginning of the prayer, the psalmist celebrated the joy of a fortune already restored by the Lord, now instead he asks for it as something still to be realized. If we apply this psalm to the return from exile, this apparent contradiction could be explained by Israel’s historical experience of a difficult and only partial return to their homeland, which prompts the man who prays to implore further divine help to bring the People’s restoration to completeness.
But the psalm goes beyond the purely historical moment and opens to broader, theological dimensions. The consoling experience of freedom from Babylon is nevertheless still incomplete, it has “already” occurred, but it is “not yet” marked by a definitive fullness. Thus, while the prayer joyously celebrates the salvation received, it opens in anticipation of its full realization. Therefore, the psalm uses distinctive imagery that in its complexity calls to mind the mysterious reality of redemption, in which the gift received and yet still to be awaited, life and death, joys dreamed of and painful tears, are interwoven.
The first image refers to the dried-up streams of the Negeb desert, which with the rains are filled with rushing waters that restore life to the arid ground and make it flourish. Thus, the psalmist’s request is that the restoration of the People’s fortunes and their return from exile be like those waters, roaring and unstoppable, capable of transforming the desert into an immense stretch of green grass and flowers.
The second image shifts from the arid and rocky hills of the Negeb to the fields that farmers cultivate for food. In describing salvation, the experience renewed every year in the world of agriculture is here recalled: the difficult and tiring time of sowing, and then the overflowing joy in the harvest. It is a sowing in tears, since one casts to the ground what could still become bread, exposing it to a time of waiting that is full of uncertainty: The farmer works, he prepares the earth, he scatters the seed, but as the parable of the Sower illustrates well, one never knows where the seed will fall — if the birds will eat it, if it will take root, if it will become an ear of grain (cf. Matthew 13:3-9; Mark 4:2-9; Luke 8:4-8).
To scatter the seed is an act of trust and of hope; man’s industriousness is needed, but then one must enter into a powerless time of waiting, well aware that many deciding factors will determine the success of the harvest, and that the risk of failure is always lurking. And yet, year after year, the farmer repeats his gesture and scatters the seed. And when it becomes an ear of grain, and the fields fill with crops, this is the joy of he who stands before an extraordinary marvel.
Jesus knew well this experience, and He spoke of it with those who were His own: “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'” (Mark 4:26-27). It is the hidden mystery of life, these are the wondrous, “great things” of salvation that the Lord carries out in human history and whose secret men do not know.
When divine help is manifested in all its fullness, it has an overflowing dimension, like the watercourses of the Negeb and like the grain of the fields — the latter also evoking a disproportion characteristic of the things of God: a disproportion between the effort of the sowing and the immense joy of the harvest; between the anxiety of waiting and the comforting vision of the granaries filled; between the little seeds thrown upon the ground and the great sheaves of grain made golden by the sun. At the harvest, all is transformed; the weeping has ended and has given way to an exultant cry of joy.
This is what the psalmist refers to when he speaks of salvation, of liberation, of the restoration of fortunes and of return from exile. The deportation to Babylon, like every other situation of suffering and of crisis, with its painful darkness filled with doubts and the apparent absence of 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 clearer and more explicit: The believer who passes through this darkness is like the grain of wheat that falls into the earth and dies, but that bears much fruit (cf. John 12:24); or, borrowing another image that was dear to Jesus, the believer is like the woman who suffers the pains of labor for the sake of attaining the joy of having brought a new life to light (cf. John 16:21).
Dear brothers and sisters, this psalm teaches us that, in our prayer, we must always remain open to hope, and firm in our faith in God. Our personal history — even if often marked by suffering, uncertainty and moments of crisis — is a history of salvation and of the “restoring of fortunes.” In Jesus our every exile ends and every tear is wiped away in the mystery of His Cross, of death transformed into life, like the grain of wheat that falls into the earth and yields a harvest. Also for us, this discovery of Jesus Christ is the great joy of God’s “yes,” of the restoration of our fortunes. But like those who — having returned from Babylon filled with joy — found an impoverished, devastated land as well as difficulty in sowing, and weeping, they suffered not knowing if at the end there would actually be a harvest, so also we, after the great discovery of Jesus Christ — our life, the truth, the way — entering into the terrain of faith, into the “land of faith,” we also often find that life is dark, hard, difficult — a sowing in tears — but we are certain that in the end, the light of Christ truly gives us the great harvest.
And we must learn this also in the dark nights; do not forget that the light is there, that God is already in the midst of our lives and that we can sow with the great trust in the fact that God’s “yes” is stronger than us all. It is important not to lose the memory of God’s presence in our lives, this profound joy that God has entered into our lives, thus freeing us: It is gratitude for the discovery of Jesus Christ, who has come among us. And this gratitude is transformed into hope; it is a star of hope that gives us trust; it is light, since the very pains of sowing are the beginning of new life, of the great and definitive joy of God.