A Meditation on the Miserere

Papal Address at General Audience

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VATICAN CITY, OCT. 24, 2001 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of John Paul II´s address at today´s general audience.



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1. We have heard the Miserere, one of the most famous prayers of the Psalter, the most intense and repeated penitential Psalm, the hymn of sin and forgiveness, the most profound meditation on guilt and grace. The Liturgy of the Hours makes us repeat it at lauds every Friday. It has risen for centuries from the hearts of Jewish and Christian faithful as a sigh of repentance and hope addressed to the merciful God.

The Jewish tradition places the Psalm on David´s lips, who was called to penance by the severe words of the prophet Nathan (see verses 1-2; 2 Samuel 11-12), who reproached him for his adultery with Bathsheba and the killing of her husband Uriah. However, the Psalm was enriched in subsequent centuries, with the prayer of so many other sinners, who recover the themes of the "new heart" and the "Spirit" of God infused in redeemed man, according to the teachings of the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel (see verse 12; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 11:19; 36:24-28).

2. Psalm 50[51] outlines two horizons. First there is the dark region of sin (see verses 3-11), in which man is situated since the beginning of his existence. "True, I was born guilty, a sinner, even as my mother conceived me" (verse 7). Although this declaration cannot be considered as an explicit formulation of the doctrine of original sin, which has been delineated by Christian theology, it undoubtedly corresponds to it. In fact, it expresses the profound dimension of the innate moral weakness of man. The first part of the Psalm is presented as an analysis of sin, made before God. There are three Hebrew words used to describe this sad reality, which stem from the evil use of human freedom.

3. Hattá, the first word, literally means to "miss the target": Sin is an aberration that leads us far from God, fundamental end of our relations, and, as a consequence, also from our neighbor.

The second Hebrew word is ´awôn, which recalls the image of "twisting," or "curving." Sin, therefore, is a torturous deviation of the right way; it is the inversion, distortion, deformation of good and evil, in the sense expressed by Isaiah: "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness" (Isaiah 5:20). Precisely because of this, the Bible describes conversion as a "return" ("shûb" in Hebrew) to the right way, correcting one´s course.

The third word with which the Psalmist speaks of sin is "peshá." It expresses the rebellion of the subject against the sovereign and, therefore, an open defiance of God and his plan for human history.

4. However, if man confesses his sin, God´s salvific justice is ready to purify him radically. And thus we come to the second spiritual part of the Psalm, that of luminous grace (see verses 12-19). In fact, through confession of faults, for the man of prayer a horizon of light opens, where God is at work. The Lord does not just act negatively, eliminating sin, but re-creates sinful humanity through his vivifying Spirit: He infuses a new and pure "heart" in man, namely, a renewed conscience, and opens the possibility of a limpid faith and worship that is pleasing to God.

In this connection, Origen speaks of a divine therapy that the Lord carries out through his word and through the healing work of Christ. "As God disposes for the body remedies of wisely combined therapeutic herbs, so he also prepared medicines for the soul with the words he infuses, scattering them in divine Scripture. ... God gave yet another medical aid whose archetype is the Savior who says about himself: ´It is not the healthy but the sick who are in need of a doctor.´ He is the doctor par excellence, able to cure every weakness and infirmity" (Homilies on the Psalms, Florence 1991, pp. 247-249).

5. The richness of Psalm 50[51] merits a careful exegesis throughout. It is what we will do when it resounds again at lauds on various Fridays. The overall view we have taken of this great biblical supplication reveals to us already some of the fundamental components of a spirituality that should reverberate in the daily life of the faithful. There is, first of all, a lively sense of sin, seen as a free choice of negative connotation at the moral and theological level. "Against you alone have I sinned; I have done such evil in your sight" (verse 6).

Then there is also in the Psalm a lively sense of the possibility of conversion: The sincerely repentant sinner (see verse 5) comes before God in all his misery and nakedness, imploring him not to dismiss him from his presence (see verse 13).

Lastly, there is in the Miserere a profound conviction of divine forgiveness that "cancels, washes, cleanses" the sinner (see verses 3-4) and finally is able to transform him into a new creature, who has a transfigured spirit, tongue, lips and heart (see verses 14-19). "Even if our sins were as black a night, divine mercy is stronger than our misery. Only one thing is necessary: that the sinner at least leave the door of his heart ajar, the rest will be done by God. Everything begins and ends in his mercy" (M. Winowska, "L´Icona dell´Amore Misericordioso. Il Messaggio di Suor Faustina," Rome, 1981, p. 271).

[Translation by ZENIT]