Reflection on a Canticle in Isaiah 61 and 62
John Paul II's Meditation on God, Jerusalem and Spousal Imagery
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VATICAN CITY, JUNE 18, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of John Paul II's address at today's general audience, which he dedicated to reflect on a canticle from the Book of Isaiah (61:10; 62:4-5).
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1. The wonderful Canticle proposed to us by the Liturgy of Lauds, which was just proclaimed, begins like a Magnificat: "I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul" (Isaiah 61:10). The text is inserted in the third part of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, a section that scholars date to a later period, when Israel, having returned from the exile in Babylon (sixth century B.C.), takes up its life again as a free people in the land of the fathers and rebuilds Jerusalem and the temple. It is no accident that the Holy City, as we will see, is at the center of the canticle, and the horizon that opens is luminous and full of hope.
2. The prophet begins his song portraying the reborn people clothed in splendid garments, like an engaged couple, ready for the great day of the nuptial celebration (see verse 10). Immediately after, another symbol is evoked, expression of life, joy, and novelty: that of herbal shoot (see verse 11).
The prophets refer to the image of the shoot, in different ways, to represent the messianic king (see Isaiah 11:1; 53:2; Jeremiah 23:5; Zechariah 3:8; 6:12). The Messiah is a fruitful shoot that renews the world, and the prophet makes explicit the profound sense of this vitality: "The Lord God will cause righteousness to spring forth" (Isaiah 61:11), by which the Holy City will become like a garden of justice, namely, of faithfulness and truth, of law and love. As the prophet said shortly before, "You shall call your walls 'Salvation' and your gates 'Praise'" (Isaiah 60:18).
3. The prophet continues to forcefully raise his voice: The song is relentless and attempts to represent the rebirth of Jerusalem, before which a new era is about to open (see Isaiah 62:1). The city is portrayed as a bride about to celebrate her wedding.
The spousal symbolism, which appears forcefully in this passage (see verses 4-5), is one of the most intense images used in the Bible to exalt the bond of intimacy and the covenant of love that exists between the Lord and the Chosen People. Its beauty is made of "salvation," "justice," and "glory" (see verses 1-2) it will be so wonderful that it will be able to be "a glorious crown in the hand of the Lord" (see verse 3).
The decisive element will be the change of name, as happens in our day when a young woman marries. To assume a "new name" (see verse 2) seems almost like being invested with a new identity, undertaking a mission, changing one's life radically (see Genesis 32:25-33).
4. The new name assumed by the bride Jerusalem, destined to represent all the people of God, is illustrated in the contrast that the Prophet specifies: "No more shall men call you 'Forsaken,' or your land 'Desolate,'/ But you shall be called 'My Delight,' and your land 'Espoused.' For the Lord delights in you, and makes your land his spouse" (Isaiah 62:4). The names that indicated the preceding situation of abandonment and desolation, that is, the devastation of the city by the power of the Babylonians and the drama of the exile, are now substituted by the names of rebirth and are terms of love and tenderness, of celebration and happiness.
At this point, all attention is focused on the bridegroom. And behold the great surprise: the Lord himself assigns to Zion its new nuptial name. Wonderful above all is the final declaration, which takes up the theme of the song of love that the people have intoned: "As a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you; And as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride so shall your God rejoice in you" (verse 5).
5. The song is no longer sung at the marriage between a king and queen, but celebrates the profound love that unites God and Jerusalem forever. In his earthly bride, which is the holy nation, the Lord finds the same happiness that the husband finds in his beloved wife. The distant and transcendent God, righteous judge, is now replaced by the close and enamored God. This nuptial symbolism will be used in the New Testament (see Ephesians 5:21-32) and will be taken up again and developed by the Fathers of the Church. For example, St. Ambrose reminds us that from this perspective, "the bridegroom is Christ, the bride is the Church, spouse because of love, virgin because of intact purity" ("Esposizione del Vangelo secondo Luca: Opere esegetiche" [Exposition of the Gospel According to Luke: Exegetic Works] X/II, Milan-Rome, 1978, p. 289).
And he continues, in another of his works: "The Church is beautiful. This is why the Word of God says to her: 'You are all fair, my love; there is no flaw in you' (Song of Songs 4:7), because the fault was submerged. ... That is why the Lord Jesus -- moved by the desire of so great a love, by the beauty of her dress and of her grace, given that in those who have been purified there is no more filth of any guilt -- says to the Church: 'Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm' (Song of Songs 8:6), namely: you are adorned, my soul, you are all beautiful, nothing is lacking in you! 'Set me as a seal upon your heart,' so that your faith will radiate through it in the fullness of the sacrament. Your works will also radiate and show the image of God, in whose image you were made" (The Mysteries, nn. 49.41: "Opere Dogmatiche" (Dogmatic Works), III, Milan-Rome, 1982, pp. 156-157).
[Translation by ZENIT]
[At the end of the audience, the Holy Father gave the following summary in English:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today's Canticle, taken from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, celebrates the rebirth and renewal of Jerusalem, portrayed as a Bride prepared for her wedding. In the Scriptures this spousal imagery evokes the covenant of love between God and his People, which brings joy and hope for the future. The New Testament takes up this imagery to describe the love of Christ for the Church, his Bride, purified of sin, holy and radiant with the joy of salvation.
I offer a warm welcome to all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today's Audience, including those from England, Sierra Leone, Canada, and the United States. I thank the choirs for their praise of God in song. In a special way, I greet the many student groups present. Upon all of you I cordially invoke the Holy Spirit's gifts of wisdom, joy, and peace.
[English distributed by Vatican press office]