General Audience Address on Sirach 36
"The God of the Bible is Not Indifferent Before Evil"
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VATICAN CITY, JAN. 23, 2001 (Zenit.org).- Following is a translation of John Paul II´s address at today´s general audience, which was dedicated to the canticle of the Book of Sirach (36:1-5,10-13). He gave the address in Italian.
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1. There is not just one official prayer book of the People of God in the Old Testament, namely, the Psalter. Many biblical pages are strewn with canticles, hymns, psalms, supplications, prayers and invocations raised to the Lord, as a response to his word. Thus the Bible reveals itself as a dialogue between God and humanity, a meeting that is put under the seal of the divine word, grace and love.
It is the case of the supplication that we just addressed to the "God of the universe" (verse 1). It is contained in the Book of Sirach, a wise man who gathered his reflections, his counsels, and his songs probably between 190-180 B.C., on the threshold of the epic of liberation lived by Israel under the guidance of the Maccabean brothers. In 138 B.C. a grandson of this sage translated into Greek, as the prologue of the volume states, the work of the grandfather in order to offer these teachings to a wider circle of readers and disciples.
The Book of Sirach is called "Ecclesiasticus" by the Christian tradition. Not having been included in the Hebrew canon, this book ended by characterizing, together with the others, the so-called "veritas christiana." Thus, the values proposed by this learned work became part of Christian education of the Patristic age, especially in the monastic realm, becoming a sort of manual for the practical conduct of the disciples of Christ.
2. The invocation of Chapter 36 of Sirach, included in a simplified form as a prayer of lauds of the Liturgy of the Hours, develops along some thematic lines.
Above all, we find the supplication to God to intervene in favor of Israel and against the foreign nations that oppress it. In the past, God revealed his holiness when he punished the faults of his people, placing them in the hands of their enemies. Now the believer asks God to show his greatness by suppressing the power of the oppressors and installing a new era of messianic overtones.
The supplication certainly reflects Israel´s tradition of prayer and, in reality, is laden with biblical reminiscences. In a certain sense, it can be considered as a model of prayer to be used at a time of persecution and oppression, as was the case when the author lived, under the rather harsh and severe dominion of Syrian-Hellenic foreign sovereigns.
3. The first part of this prayer opens with an ardent appeal to the Lord that he have mercy and pay attention (see verse 1). However, immediately the attention is directed toward the divine action, which is exalted through a series of very moving verbs: "[Come to our aid. Put ... in dread of you.] Raise your hand. Show your glory. Give new signs. Work new wonders. Show forth the splendor of your right hand and arm."
The God of the Bible is not indifferent before evil. And although his ways are not our ways, his times and plans are different to ours (see Isaiah 55:8-9), yet he places himself on the side of the victims and appears as severe judge of the violent, the oppressors, the victorious who have no mercy.
However, his intervention does not seek destruction. In showing his power and his faithfulness in love, he can also generate in the conscience of the evildoer a shudder that will lead him to conversion. "Thus they will know, as we know, that there is no God but you" (verse 4).
4. The second part of the hymn opens a more positive prospect. In fact, while the first part appeals for God´s intervention against the enemies, the second no longer speaks of enemies, but requests the favors of God for Israel, implores his mercy for the chosen people and for Jerusalem, the holy city.
The dream of the return of all the exiled, including those of the northern kingdom, becomes the object of the prayer: "Gather all the tribes of Jacob, that they may inherit the land as of old" (verse 10). Thus is requested a sort of rebirth of the whole of Israel, as in the joyful times of occupation of the whole of the Promised Land.
In order to make the prayer more urgent, the man of prayer insists on the relation that binds God to Israel and Jerusalem. Israel is designated "the people called by your name," the one "whom you named your firstborn"; Jerusalem is "your holy city," "your dwelling place." It then expresses the desire that the relation become even closer and thus more glorious: "Fill Zion with your majesty, your temple with your glory" (verse 13). By filling the Temple of Jerusalem with his majesty, who will gather all nations to himself (see Isaiah 2:2-4; Micah 4:1-3), the Lord will fill his people with his glory.
5. In the Bible, the lament of those who suffer never ends in desperation, but is always open to hope. It is based on the certainty that the Lord does not abandon his children, he does not let those he made fall from his hands.
The selection made of the liturgy has omitted a very fortunate expression of our prayer. It asks God to "give evidence of your deeds of old" (verse 14). From all eternity God has a plan of love and salvation for all the creatures, called to become his people. It is a plan that St. Paul recognized as "revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit ... according to the eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Ephesians 3:5-11).
[Translation by ZENIT]
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[At the end of the audience, the Holy Father gave this summary in English]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
The whole of Sacred Scripture, especially in its hymns and prayers, bears witness to a great unending dialogue between God and humanity. Today´s Canticle is taken from the Book of Sirach, which is sometimes called Ecclesiasticus, or the Book of the Church, because it is not part of the Hebrew canon. The Canticle is a prayer in time of suffering, begging God to defend the victims against their persecutors. This cry is based upon the belief that God is not indifferent in the battle against evil, and that if he strikes the evildoers, it is not to destroy but to bring them to conversion. The Canticle implores God to have compassion on his holy people, so that once again the divine glory may shine forth in their midst before all the nations. Because of its firm sense of what God has done in the past and what he plans for the future, the Canticle of Sirach becomes a hymn of hope which the Church can make her own in every age.
I warmly welcome the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors here today, especially those from England, Denmark, Finland, Japan and the United States. I greet especially the Marist Brothers: may your time of renewal in Rome strengthen your commitment to teach the young the way of Christ. Upon all present I invoke the blessings of peace, and I ask you to be united spiritually with me and the representatives of the world religions as we go on pilgrimage to Assisi tomorrow in order to pray for peace in the world.
[Original text: English; distributed by Vatican Press Office]