"Mercy, My God," John Paul II Says

Comments on Psalm 50, "Miserere," at the General Audience

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CASTEL GANDOLFO, JULY 30, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Here is John Paul II's address at the Wednesday General Audience, which he dedicated to Psalm 50, "Mercy, My God" or "Miserere."



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1. It is the fourth time that we hear, during our reflections on the "Liturgy of Lauds," the proclamation of Psalm 50, the famous "Miserere." In fact, it is proposed on Friday of every week, as an oasis for meditation, where one can discover the evil that nests in the conscience and invoke from the Lord purification and forgiveness. Indeed, as the Psalmist confesses in another supplication, "no man living is righteous before thee," O Lord (Psalm 142:2). In the Book of Job one reads: "How then can man be righteous before God? How can he who is born of woman be clean? Behold, even the moon is not bright and the stars are not clean in his sight; how much less man, who is a maggot, and the son of man, who is a worm!" (25:4-6).

Strong and dramatic phrases, which try to show in all seriousness and gravity the limit and fragility of the human creature, his perverse capacity to sow evil and violence, impurity and falsehood. However, the message of hope of the "Miserere," which the Psalter puts on David's lips, converted sinner, is this: God can "cancel, wash, clean" the fault confessed with a contrite heart (see Psalm 50:2-3). The Lord says through Isaiah's voice: "though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool" (1:18).

2. On this occasion, we will reflect briefly on the conclusion of Psalm 50, a conclusion full of hope as the man of prayer is aware of having been forgiven by God (see verses 17-21). His mouth is about to proclaim to the world the praise of the Lord, attesting in this way the joy felt by the soul purified of evil and, consequently, freed from remorse (see verse 17).

The man of prayer manifests clearly another conviction, related to the reiterated teaching of the prophets (see Isaiah 1:10-17; Amos 5:21-25; Hosea 6:6): the most pleasing sacrifice that rises to the Lord as a delicate perfume and fragrance (see Genesis 8:21) is not the holocaust of bulls and lambs but, rather, a "broken and contrite heart"(Psalm 50:19).

The Imitation of Christ, a text so dear to the Christian spiritual tradition, repeats the same admonition as the Psalmist: "The humble contrition of sins is for you the pleasing sacrifice, a perfume more delicate than the smoke of incense ... In it, every iniquity is purified and washed" (III,52:4).

3. The Psalm ends in an unexpected way with a completely different perspective, which might even seem contradictory (see verses 20-21). From the last supplication of a single sinner it passes to a prayer for the reconstruction of the whole city of Jerusalem, transporting us from the time of David to that of the destruction of the city, centuries later. Moreover, after having expressed in verse 18 the divine rejection of the immolation of animals, the Psalm announces in verse 21 that God will be pleased with these very immolations.

It is clear that this last passage is a later addition, made in the time of exile, attempting in a certain sense to correct or at least to complete the perspective of David's Psalm. It does so in two ways: on one hand, it does not wish the Psalm to be restricted to an individual prayer; there was also need to think of the pitiful situation of the whole city. On the other hand, there was a desire to reappraise the divine rejection of ritual sacrifices; this rejection could not be complete or definitive, as it was worship prescribed by God himself in the Torah. The one who completed the Psalm had a valid intuition: he understood the need in which sinners find themselves, the need for the mediation of a sacrifice. Sinners are not able to purify themselves; good sentiments are not enough. An external effective mediation is needed. The New Testament will reveal the full meaning of this intuition, showing that with the offering of his life, Christ has effected the perfect sacrificial mediation.

4. In his "Homilies on Ezekiel," St. Gregory the Great understood well the difference of perspective that exists between verses 19 and 21 of the "Miserere." He proposes an interpretation, which we can make our own, thus concluding our reflection. St. Gregory applies verse 19, which speaks of the contrite spirit, to the earthly existence of the Church, and verse 21, which speaks of the holocaust, to the Church in heaven.

Here are the words of the great Pontiff: "The holy Church has two lives: one in time, the other in eternity; one of labor on earth, the other of recompense in heaven; one in which merits are gained, the other in which merits gained are enjoyed. Both in one as well as in the other life it offers sacrifice: here the sacrifice of compunction and on high the sacrifice of praise. About the first sacrifice it has been said: 'A contrite spirit is a sacrifice to God' (Psalm 50:19); about the second it has been written: "then wilt thou delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings" (Psalm 50:21) .... In both flesh is offered, as here the oblation of flesh is the mortification of the body, while on high the oblation of flesh is the glory of the resurrection in praise of God. On high flesh will be offered as a holocaust, when transformed in eternal incorruptibility, there will no longer be any conflict or anything mortal as it will remain wholly burning with love for him, in endless praise" ("Homilies on Ezekiel," 2, Rome, 1993, p. 271).

[Translation by ZENIT]

[At the end of the Audience, the Holy Father gave this summary in English]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today's Psalm presents a message of great hope. In face of our sinfulness and fragility, we are reassured that God is always ready to forgive. If we recognize our own need for the forgiveness and mercy of God, and turn to him with a contrite heart, he is ready to wash away our guilt and cleanse us from our sins.

Knowing that we are reconciled with God and filled with hope, let us pray for the courage to proclaim to the world his praises, and let us teach others the reconciliation and forgiveness of our loving God.

I extend a special welcome to the English-speaking visitors and pilgrims here today, including the groups from Scotland, the Holy Land, Saint Lucia, and the United States. May your visit to Castel Gandolfo and Rome bring you peace and hope. Upon all of you I invoke the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Happy holidays!