Wednesday, 20 October 2004 - First section of Psalm 49[48]: 1-13 - "In his riches, man lacks wisdom!'

66 Ps 49,1-13

1. Our meditation on Psalm 49[48] will be divided into two parts, just as it is proposed on two separate occasions by the Liturgy of Vespers. We will now comment in detail on the first part in which it is hardship that inspires reflection, as in Psalm 72[71]. The just man must face "evil days" since he is surrounded by "the malice of [his] foes", who "boast of the vastness of their riches" (cf. Ps 49,6-7 [48]).

The conclusion that the just man reaches is formulated as a sort of proverb, a refrain that recurs in the finale to the whole Psalm. It sums up clearly the predominant message of this poetic composition: "In his riches, man lacks wisdom: he is like the beasts that are destroyed" (Ps 49,13). In other words, untold wealth is not an advantage, far from it! It is better to be poor and to be one with God.

2. The austere voice of an ancient biblical sage, Ecclesiastes or Qoheleth, seems to ring out in this proverb when it describes the apparently identical destiny of every living creature, that of death, which makes frantic clinging to earthly things completely pointless: "As he came from his mother's womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil.... For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other.... All go to one place" (Qo 5,14 Qo 3,19 Qo 3,20).

3. A profound blindness takes hold of man if he deludes himself that by striving to accumulate material goods he can avoid death. Not for nothing does the Psalmist speak of an almost animal-like "lack of understanding".

The topic, however, was to be explored by all cultures and forms of spirituality and its essence was expressed once and for all by Jesus, who said: "Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions" (Lc 12,15). He then recounts the famous Parable of the Rich Fool who accumulated possessions out of all proportion without a thought of the snare that death was setting for him (cf. Lc 12,16-21).

4. The first part of the Psalm is wholly centred on this illusion that has the rich man's heart in its grip. He is convinced that he will also even succeed in "buying off" death, attempting as it were to corrupt it, much as he had to gain possession of everything else, such as success, triumph over others in social and political spheres, dishonest dealings, impunity, his satisfaction, comforts and pleasures.

But the Psalmist does not hesitate to brand this excess as foolish. He uses a word that also has financial overtones: "ransom": "No man can buy his own ransom, or pay a price to God for his life. The ransom of his soul is beyond him. He cannot buy life without end, nor avoid coming to the grave" (Ps 49,8-10 [48]).

5. The rich man, clinging to his immense fortune, is convinced that he will succeed in overcoming death, just as with money he had lorded it over everything and everyone. But however vast a sum he is prepared to offer, he cannot escape his ultimate destiny. Indeed, like all other men and women, rich and poor, wise and foolish alike, he is doomed to end in the grave, as happens likewise to the powerful, and he will have to leave behind on earth that gold so dear to him and those material possessions he so idolized (cf. Ps 49,11-12).

Jesus asked those listening to him this disturbing question: "What shall a man give in return for his life?" (Mt 16,26). No exchange is possible, for life is a gift of God, and "in his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind" (Jb 12,10).

6. Among the Fathers who commented on Psalm 49[48], St Ambrose deserves special attention. He extends its meaning to a broader vision, starting precisely with the Psalmist's initial invitation: "Hear this, all you peoples, give heed, all who dwell in the world".

The Bishop of Milan commented in ancient times: "Let us recognize here, from the outset, the voice of the Lord our Saviour who calls the peoples to the Church in order to renounce sin, to become followers of the truth and to recognize the advantage of faith". Moreover, "all the hearts of the various human generations were polluted by the venom of the serpent, and the human conscience, enslaved by sin, was unable to detach itself from it". This is why the Lord, "of his own initiative, in the generosity of his mercy promised forgiveness, so that the guilty would be afraid no longer and with full awareness rejoice to be able to offer their offices as servants to the good Lord who has forgiven sins and rewarded virtues" (Commento a Dodici Salmi, n. 1: SAEMO, VIII, Milan-Rome, 1980, p. 253).

7. In these words of our Psalm we can hear echoes of the Gospel invitation: "Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you" (Mt 11,28). Ambrose continues, "Like someone who will come to visit the sick, like a doctor who will come to treat our painful wounds, so [the Lord] points out the cure to us, so that men may hear him clearly and hasten with trust and promptness to receive the healing remedy.... He calls all the peoples to the source of wisdom and knowledge and promises redemption to them all, so that no one will live in anguish or desperation" (n. 2: ibid. , pp. 253,255).

To English-speaking pilgrims

I am pleased to welcome the English-speaking pilgrims present at this Audience, especially those from England, Scotland and the United States of America. Upon all of you I invoke the blessings of peace and joy in Our Lord Jesus Christ.

To special groups

My thoughts now go to the young people, the sick and the newly-weds. Dear friends, may the prayer of the Holy Rosary, recited with devotion every day, help you to penetrate more and more deeply the mystery of Jesus, the Redeemer of humanity, and to experience the motherly tenderness of Mary.

Wednesday, 27 October 2004 - Second part of Psalm 49[48]: 14-21 - "God will ransom me!'

1. As it gradually develops, the Liturgy of Vespers presents to us the sapiential Psalm 49[48], whose second part has just been proclaimed (cf.
Ps 49,14-21). This section of the Psalm, like the previous part (cf. Ps 49,1-13) on which we have already reflected, also condemns the illusion to which idolizing riches gives rise. This is one of humanity's constant temptations: clinging to money as though it were endowed with some invincible power, we allude ourselves that we can even "buy off death" and keep it at bay.

2. In reality, death bursts in with its ability to demolish every illusion, sweeping away every obstacle and humbling our pride (cf. Ps 49,14), ushering into the next world rich and poor, sovereigns and subjects, foolish and wise alike. The Psalmist has sketched a vivid image, showing death as a shepherd firmly driving his flock of corruptible creatures (cf. Ps 49,15). Thus, Psalm 49[48] offers us a realistic and stern meditation on death, the unavoidable and fundamental destination of human existence.

We often seek to ignore this reality in every possible way, distancing the very thought of it from our horizons. This effort, however, apart from being useless, is also inappropriate. Reflection on death is in fact beneficial because it relativizes all the secondary realities that we have unfortunately absolutized, namely, riches, success and power. Consequently, Sirach, an Old Testament sage, warns us: "In all you do, remember the end of your life, and then you will never sin" (Si 7,36).

3. However, here comes a crucial turning point in our Psalm. If money cannot "ransom" us from death (cf. Ps 49,8-9 [48]), yet there is One who can save us from that dark, traumatic shadow on the horizon. In fact, the Psalmist says: "God will ransom me from death and take my soul to himself" (Ps 49,16).

Thus, a horizon of hope and immortality unfolds before the just. The response to the question asked in the first part of the Psalm, "why should I fear", (Ps 49,6) is: "do not fear when a man grows rich" (Ps 49,17).

68 4. When the just person, poor and humiliated in history, reaches the ultimate boundary of life, he has no possessions, he has nothing to pay as a "ransom" to stave off death and remove himself from its icy embrace. Here is the great surprise: God himself pays the ransom and snatches his faithful from the hands of death, for he is the only One who can conquer death that human creatures cannot escape.

The Psalmist therefore invites us "not to fear" nor to envy the rich who grow ever more arrogant in their glory (cf. ibid.
Ps 49,17) since, when death comes, they will be stripped of everything and unable to take with them either gold or silver, fame or success (cf. Ps 49,18-19). The faithful, instead, will not be abandoned by the Lord, who will point out to him "the path of life, the fullness of joy in your presence, at your right hand happiness for ever" (cf. Ps 16,11 [15])

5. And then, at the conclusion of the sapiential meditation on Psalm 49[48], we will be able to apply the words of Jesus which describe to us the true treasure that challenges death: "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Mt 6,19-21).

6. As a corollary to Christ's words, in his Comment on Psalm 49[48], St Ambrose reasserts firmly and clearly the inconsistency of riches: "They are all perishable and go faster than they came. A treasure of this kind is but a dream. On waking, it has disappeared, for the person who rids himself of the intoxication of this world and acquires the sobriety of virtue will despise all these things and attach no importance whatsoever to money" (Commento a Dodici Salmi, n. 23: SAEMO, VIII, Milan-Rome, 1980, p. 275).

7. The Bishop of Milan therefore invites us not to be ingenuously attracted by human wealth and glory: "Do not fear, even when you see the magnification of some powerful family's glory! Know how to look deeply, with attention, and it will appear empty to you unless it contains a crumb of the fullness of faith". Indeed, before Christ's coming, man was decadent and empty: "The ruinous fall of that ancient Adam emptied us, but Christ's grace has filled us. He emptied himself to fill us and make the fullness of virtue dwell in human flesh". St Ambrose concludes that for this very reason, we can now exclaim with St John, "And from his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace" (Jn 1,16) (cf. ibid.).

To English-speaking pilgrims

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

I offer a warm welcome to all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today's Audience. I greet particularly the groups from England, Ireland, Denmark, Greece and the United States of America. Wishing you a pleasant time in the Eternal City, I cordially invoke upon you joy and peace in our Lord Jesus Christ. Have a happy stay in Rome!

To special groups

Then, I address my affectionate greeting to the young people, the sick and the newly-weds.
I urge you, dear friends, to base your life on Christ, to be his witnesses and builders of the civilization of love.
Prayers for the Iraqi People

Every day I accompany in prayer the beloved population of Iraq, intent on rebuilding its own Country's institutions.

At the same time, I encourage Christians to continue with generosity to make their own fundamental contribution to the reconciliation of hearts.

Lastly, I express my affectionate participation in the grief of the victims' families and in the suffering of the hostages and of all the innocent victims of the blind barbarism of terrorism.

November 2004

Wednesday, 3 November 2004 - Fourth chapter of the Book of Revelation - "Worthy is the Lamb'

1. The Canticle we have just heard marks the Liturgy of Vespers with the simplicity and intensity of a chorus of praise. It belongs to the solemn vision situated at the beginning of the Book of Revelation, placing at the forefront a heavenly Liturgy to which we too, pilgrims on the earth, join during our ecclesial celebrations.

The hymn, composed of certain verses taken from the Book of Revelation and pieced together for liturgical use, is based on two fundamental elements. Outlined briefly, the first is the celebration of the Lord's work: "You created all things, and by your will they existed and were created" (
Ap 4,11). Indeed, creation reveals God's immense power. In the Book of Wisdom, it is written that "from the greatness and beauty of created things their original author, by analogy, is seen" (Sg 13,5). Likewise, the Apostle Paul notes that "since the creation of the world, invisible realities, God's eternal power and divinity, have become visible" (Rm 1,20). It then becomes a duty to raise the song of praise to the Creator in celebration of his glory.

2. It may be interesting to recall in this context that the Emperor Domitian, who probably ruled when the Book of Revelation was written, demanded that he himself be hailed as "Dominus et deus noster" [Lord and our God] (cf. Suetonius, Domitian, XIII).

Obviously, Christians refused to attribute such titles to a human creature, however powerful, preferring to direct their acclamation of adoration to "our only true Lord and God", the Creator of the universe (cf. Ap 4,11), to the One who is, together with God, "the first and the last" (cf. Ap 1,17), seated on the heavenly throne with God his Father (cf. Ap 3,21): Christ died and risen, symbolically represented here as a "Lamb who is worthy" although he has been "slain" (cf. Ap 5,6).
Christ, the slain Lamb

3. Such is the second element, broadly developed, of the canticle that we are commenting on: Christ, the slain Lamb. The four living creatures together with the 24 elders praise him with a song beginning with the acclamation: "Worthy are you, O Lord, to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain" (Ap 5,9).

It is Christ, then, with his historical work of redemption, who is at the heart of the praise. Precisely for this reason, he is able to interpret the meaning of history, for it is he who "opens the seals" (cf. ibid. Ap 5,9) of the secret scroll which contains the project willed by God.

70 4. His is not only a work of interpretation, but is likewise an act of fulfilment and liberation. As he has been "slain", he is able to "ransom" (ibid. Ap 5,9) men and women coming from the most varied origins.

The Greek word used does not explicitly refer us to the history of the Exodus, where "ransoming" the Israelites is never spoken of; however, the continuation of the phrase makes a clear reference to the well-known promise made by God to the Israelites of Sinai: "You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex 19,6).

5. This promise has now become a reality: the Lamb has truly established for God "a kingdom and priests... who shall reign on earth" (cf. Ap 5,10). The door of this kingdom is open to all humanity, called to form the community of the children of God, as St Peter reminds us: "You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God"s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light" (1P 2,9).

The Second Vatican Council explicitly refers to these texts of the First Letter of Peter and of the Book of Revelation when, referring to the "common priesthood" that belongs to all the faithful, it points out the components to enable them to carry it out. "The faithful indeed, by virtue of their royal priesthood, participate in the offering of the Eucharist. They exercise that priesthood, too, by the reception of the sacraments, prayer and thanksgiving, the witness of a holy life, abnegation and active charity (Lumen Gentium, LG 10).

6. The canticle of the Book of Revelation that we are meditating upon today draws to a close with a final acclamation raised by "thousands and thousands" of angels (cf. Ap 5,11). It refers to the "slain Lamb", to whom is granted the same glory given to God the Father, because he is "worthy... to receive power and wealth, and wisdom and might" (Ap 5,12). This is the moment of pure contemplation, joyful praise, song of love to Christ in his Paschal Mystery.

This shining image of heavenly glory is anticipated in the liturgy of the Church. Indeed, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, the liturgy is an "action" of the whole Christ ("Christus totus"). Those who even now celebrate it on earth without signs are already in the heavenly liturgy, where celebration is totally communion and feast. "It is in this eternal liturgy that the Spirit and the Church enable us to participate whenever we celebrate the mystery of salvation in the sacraments" (CEC 1139).

To English-speaking pilgrims

I offer a warm welcome to all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today's Audience. I greet particularly the groups from England, Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, Malta and the United States of America. Wishing you a pleasant stay in Rome, I cordially invoke upon you joy and peace in our Lord Jesus Christ.

To special groups

I greet the young people, sick people and newly-weds.

Dear friends, we have just celebrated the Solemnity of All Saints and the Commemoration of All Souls, and tomorrow is the Memorial of St Charles Borromeo, especially dear to me. May these celebrations encourage each one of you to follow the example of the saints, who sacrificed their lives in the service of God and neighbour.

Wednesday, 10 November 2004 - Psalm\i 62[61] - "In God alone be at rest!'

Ps 62

1. The gentle words of Psalm 62[61] have just resounded; it is a hymn of trust that opens with what appears to be an antiphon, repeated halfway through the text. It is like a peaceful and strong ejaculatory prayer, an invocation that also becomes a programme of life: "In God alone is my soul at rest; my help comes from him. He alone is my rock, my stronghold, my fortress: I stand firm" (Ps 62,2-3 Ps 62,6-7).

2. As the Psalm continues, however, two types of trust are compared. They are two fundamental choices, one good and the other perverse, which involve two types of moral behaviour. Above all, there is trust in God, exalted in the opening invocation where there enters into the picture a symbol of stability and of security, like the rock, the "fortress"; that is, a stronghold and bulwark of protection.

The Psalmist repeats: "In God is my safety and glory, the rock of my strength; my sure "refuge'" (cf. Ps 62,8). He affirms this after having called to mind the hostile conspiracies of his enemies who try to "thrust him down from his eminence" (cf. Ps 62,4-5).

3. There is then another trust of an idolatrous nature, upon which the person of prayer insistently directs his critical eye. It is a trust that searches for security and stability in violence, plunder and riches.

The appeal now becomes crystal clear: "Do not put your trust in oppression nor vain hopes on plunder. Do not set your heart on riches, even when they increase" (Ps 62,11).

Here, three idols are evoked and rejected as contrary to human dignity and to social coexistence.

4. The first false god is the violence that humanity unfortunately still continues to resort to in our blood-stained days. Marching alongside this idol is the vast procession of wars, oppression, prevarication, torture and abominable assassinations inflicted without a moment's remorse.

The second false god is plunder, manifested in extortion, social injustice, usury and political and economic corruption. Too many people cultivate the "illusion" of satisfying their own greed in this way.

Finally, riches are the third idol upon which man sets his heart with the false hope of being rescued from death (cf. Ps 49 [48]), and assuring himself of prestige and power of the first order.

5. Serving this diabolical triad, man forgets that idols are unreliable: they are, indeed, harmful. By taking refuge in things and in himself, man tends to forget that he is "a breath... an illusion"; what is more, weighed on a scale he is "less than a breath" (Ps 62,10 [61]; cf. Ps 39,6-7 [38]).

If we were more aware of our fallen nature and of the limits to which creatures are subject, we would shun the path of trust in idols and would not programme our lives based on a scale of fragile and inconsistent pseudo-values. Instead, we would be oriented toward the "other trust", which finds its centre in the Lord, source of eternity and peace. Indeed, to God alone "belongs power"; only he is the source of grace; he alone is the author of justice, "repaying each man according to his deeds" (cf. Ps 62,12-13 [61]).

6. The Second Vatican Council applied to priests the invitation of Psalm 62[61] to "not set your heart on riches" (Ps 62,11b). The Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests exhorts: "Priests, far from setting their hearts on riches, must always avoid all avarice and carefully refrain from all appearance of trafficking" (Presbyterorum Ordinis PO 17).

And yet, this appeal to reject misplaced trust and to choose that which leads us to God is relevant to everyone and must become our guiding star in our daily behaviour, moral decisions and lifestyle.

73 7. Undeniably, this is a difficult road that entails trial for the righteous and courageous decision-making, always marked, however, by trust in God (cf. Ps 62,2 [61]). In this light the Fathers of the Church have looked upon the man of prayer in Psalm 62[61] as the prefiguration of Christ and have placed the opening invocation of complete trust in and adherence to God on his lips.

St Ambrose elaborates on this subject in the Commento al Salmo 61 [Comment on Psalm 61]: "What must our Lord Jesus have done first, in taking upon himself the flesh of man to purify it in his own body, if not to cancel the evil influence of original sin? By means of disobedience, that is, violating the divine prescriptions, sin became permeated. Before all else, then, he had to restore obedience to prevent the hotbed of sin from spreading.... He took obedience upon himself in order to pour it out upon us" (Commento a Dodici Salmi 61, 4: SAEMO, VIII, Milan-Rome, 1980, p. 283).

To English-speaking pilgrims

I extend a special welcome to the English-speaking pilgrims here today, including groups from England, Ireland, Japan and the United States of America. Upon all of you I invoke the grace and peace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and I wish you many blessings during your stay in Rome.

To special groups

I greet the young people, sick people and newly-weds present and encourage them to offer to the Lord every good aspiration and project.

Wednesday, 17 November 2004 - Psalm\i 67[66]: "the earth has yielded its fruit" (v. 7)

Ps 67

1. "The earth has yielded its fruit", exclaims Psalm 67[66], one of the texts inserted into the Liturgy of Vespers that we have just proclaimed. The sentence calls to mind a hymn of thanksgiving to the Creator for the gifts of the earth, a sign of divine blessing. This natural element, however, is closely interwoven with the historical aspect: nature's fruits are taken as an opportunity to ask God again and again to bless his people (cf. Ps 67,2 Ps 67,7 Ps 67,8); thus, all the nations of the earth address Israel, seeking through her to reach God the Saviour.

So it is that the composition has a universal and missionary outlook, in continuity with the divine promise made to Abraham: "by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves" (Gn 12,3 cf. Gn 18,18 Gn 28,14).

2. The divine blessing implored for Israel is expressed in the productivity of the fields and in fertility, that is, in the gift of life. Hence, the Psalm opens with a verse (cf. Ps 67,2 [66]) that refers to the famous priestly blessing mentioned in the Book of Numbers: "The Lord bless you and keep you: The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you: The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace" (Nb 6,24-26).

The theme of blessing re-echoes in the finale of the Psalm in which the fruit the earth has yielded is mentioned (cf. Ps 67,7-8 [66]). And it is here that we find the universal theme that gives the spiritual substance of the whole hymn surprisingly broad horizons. This openness reflects the sensitivity of an Israel that is henceforth prepared to confront all the peoples of the earth. Perhaps the Psalm was composed following the period of the Babylonian Exile when the people had already begun to experience life in the Diaspora, in foreign nations and new regions.

3. Thanks to the blessing implored by Israel, all humanity was to know the Lord's "ways" and his "saving help" (cf. Ps 67,3), that is, his plan of salvation. It is revealed to all cultures and to all societies that God judges and governs the peoples of every part of the earth, leading each one towards horizons of justice and peace (cf. Ps 67,5).

This is the great ideal to which we aspire, the most involving announcement that emerges from Psalm 67[66] and from so many of the Prophets' writings (cf. Is 2,1-5 Is 60,1-22 Jon 4,1-11 So 3,9-10 Ml 1,11).

This was also to be the Christian proclamation that St Paul described, recalling that the salvation of all the peoples is the heart of the "mystery", in other words, the divine plan of salvation: "the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel" (Ep 3,6).

4. Henceforth, Israel can ask God to involve all the nations in his praise; they will form a universal choir: "Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you!", is repeated in the Psalm (cf. Ps 67,4 Ps 67,6 [66]).

The hope this Psalm expresses heralds the event described by the Letter to the Ephesians, which might be an allusion to the dividing wall in the Temple that separated the Jews from the pagans: "In Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility.... So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God" (Ep 2,13-14 Ep 2,19).

This message is for us: we must pull down the walls of division, hostility and hate so that the family of God's children may once again live in harmony at the one table, to bless and praise the Creator for the gifts he lavishes upon all without distinction (cf. Mt 5,43-48).

5. Christian tradition has reinterpreted Psalm 67[66] in a Christological and Mariological key. For the Fathers of the Church, "the earth has yielded its fruit" is a reference to the Virgin Mary who brought forth Christ the Lord.

Thus, for example, in his Exposition on the First Book of Kings St Gregory the Great comments on this verse, interspersing his remarks with many other scriptural citations: "Mary is rightly called a "richly fruitful mountain' because from her was born an excellent fruit, that is, a new man. And the Prophet, seeing her beautiful, decked out in the glory of her fruitfulness, exclaims: "There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse and a branch shall grow out of his roots' (Is 11,1).

David, exulting at the fruit of this mountain, says to God, "Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you. The earth has yielded its fruit...'. Yes, the earth has yielded its fruit, for the One whom the Virgin brought forth was not conceived by a human act but by the Holy Spirit who spread his shadow over her. Therefore, the Lord says to David, Prophet and King: "the fruit of your body will I set upon your throne' (Ps 132,11 [131]). Consequently, Isaiah says: "the fruit of the land shall be honour and splendour' (Is 4,2). Indeed, the One whom the Virgin conceived was not only a "human saint' but also "Mighty God' (Is 9,5)" (Marian Texts of the First Millennium, III, Rome, 1990, p. 625).

To English-speaking pilgrims

I extend a special welcome to the English-speaking pilgrims here today, including groups from Finland, the Philippines and the United States of America. Upon all of you I invoke the peace and joy of Our Lord, and I wish you a happy stay in Rome.

To special groups

Now, I greet the young people, sick people and newly-weds. Dear Friends, follow the example of St Elizabeth of Hungary, whom we are commemorating today, and seek in Jesus the light for every one of your daily decisions.

Wednesday, 24 November 2004 - Hymn from the Letter to the Colossians - Firstborn of all creation

75 (Col 1,3 Col 1,12-20)

1. We have just heard resound the great Christological hymn that opens the Letter to the Colossians. It exalts the glorious figure of Christ, the heart of the liturgy and centre of all ecclesial life. The horizon of the hymn, however, soon widens to embrace creation and redemption, involving every created being and the whole of history.

In this Canticle we can identify the quality of the faith and prayer of the ancient Christian community; it is the voice and testimony of this community that the Apostle has recorded, although he has set his own seal upon the hymn.

2. After an introduction in which thanks are given to the Father for our redemption (cf. Col 1,12-14), our hymn is divided into two strophes that the Liturgy of Vespers proposes anew each week. The first celebrates Christ as the "firstborn of all creation", that is, begotten before all other beings. Hence, this strophe affirms his eternity which transcends space and time (cf. Col 1,15-18a). He is the "image", the visible "icon" of God who remains invisible in his mystery. It was through this experience of Moses, in his ardent desire to look upon God's personal reality, that he heard in response: "You cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live" (Ex 33,30 cf. Jn 14,8-9).

Instead, the face of the Father, Creator of the universe, becomes accessible in Christ, the architect of created reality: "All things were created through him... and in him all things hold together" (Col 1,16-17). Thus, while on the one hand Christ is superior to created realities, on the other hand he is involved in their creation. For this he can be seen by us as an "image of the invisible God", brought close to us through the act of creation.

3. In the second strophe (cf. Col 1,18-20), the praise in Christ's honour reaches to a further horizon: of salvation, redemption, the rebirth of humanity created by him but which, through sin, had been plunged into death.

76 Now, the "fullness" of grace and of the Holy Spirit that the Father instilled in the Son enabled him, through dying and being raised, to communicate new life to us (cf. Col 1,19-20).

4. He is therefore celebrated as "the firstborn from the dead" (Col 1,18b). With his divine "fullness" but also by shedding his blood on the Cross, Christ "reconciles" and "makes peace" with all things, in heaven and on earth. Thus, he brings them back to their original condition, recreating the initial harmony that God desired in accordance with his plan of love and life. Creation and redemption are thus connected, like the stages of one and the same saving event.

5. In accordance with our customary practice, let us now make room for the meditation of those great teachers of faith, the Fathers of the Church. One of them will guide us in our reflection on the work of redemption that Christ brought about through his sacrificial blood.

Commenting on our hymn, St John Damascene, in the Commentary on the Letters of St Paul that has been attributed to him, writes: "St Paul speaks of "redemption through his blood' (Ep 1,7). The ransom given is in fact the Blood of the Lord which leads prisoners from death to life. The subjects of the kingdom of death could not be set free in any other way except through the One who shared with us in death.... By the work wrought by his coming, we became acquainted with the nature of God who existed before his coming. Indeed, it was God who stamped out death, restoring life and leading the world back to God. He therefore says: "He is the image of the invisible God' (Col 1,15), to show that he is God, even if he is not the Father but the image of the Father and shares the identity of the Father, although he is not the Father" (I Libri della Bibbia Interpretati dalla Grande Tradizione, Bologna, 2000, pp. 18,23).

John Damascene then concludes by giving us an overall picture of the saving work of Christ: "The death of Christ saved and renewed man; and it brought the angels back to their original joy because of the people saved, and combined earthly realities with those above.... Indeed, he made peace and took away enmity. Therefore, the angels said: "Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth'" (ibid., p. 37).

To English-speaking pilgrims

I extend a warm welcome to the English-speaking pilgrims here today, including groups from England, Denmark, Australia and the United States of America. Upon all of you I invoke the peace and joy of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and I pray that your stay in Rome will bring you abundant blessings.

To special groups

Lastly, I greet you, dear sick people and dear newly-weds.

May Christ, who made the Cross a royal throne, help you, dear sick people, to understand the redeeming value of suffering lived in union with him; may he fill you with his love, dear newly-weds, so that your families will be holy and full of joy.

I am very glad to meet you, dear young people and students from various parts of Italy. With affection I address a cordial greeting to each one of you.

Last Sunday we celebrated the Solemnity of Christ the King. Dear friends, may Jesus always be the centre of your lives! May he be your light and your guide in all your decisions; with your witness, take part generously in building his Kingdom of justice and peace.

December 2004