Fidelity is the best response to God's benefits

The Canticle helps us to check up on our fidelity, we share Israel's faith in God who is always 'just and right' and merciful even when we are indifferent

On Wednesday, 19 June, during his 43rd catechesis on the psalms of Lauds, the Holy Father commented on the Canticle of Deuteronomy 32,1-12, used at Lauds on Saturday of the 2nd Week of the year. Our infidelity is usually caused by our forgetfulness of God's benefits. The Canticle of Deuteronomy is a joyful song to the Lord, who takes care of his people in good and in bad times. The Canticle can be read as a call of Moses to the elements of the universe the heavens and the earth to testify to God's unfailing love. It is a lively expression of Israel's faith in God who is always just and merciful even when we meet his fidelity with our indifference. To help us remember, Biblical faith is a "memorial", a rediscovery of God's eternal action spread over time; it makes present and effective now the salvation that the Lord has given and continues to give the human being. The Canticle helps us to examine our conscience: do we maintain a spirit of thanksgiving to God for his unending goodness towards us. Here is a translation of the Holy Father's catechesis.

Hymn to the Lord who protects his people amid dangers and difficulties 

1. "Then Moses pronounced the words of this song from beginning to end, for the whole assembly of Israel to hear" (Dt 31,30). This is how the canticle we have just heard begins. It is taken from the last pages of the Book of Deuteronomy, to be precise, from chapter 32. The Liturgy of Lauds took the first 12 verses, recognizing in them a joyful hymn to the Lord who lovingly protects and cares for his people amid the daylong dangers and difficulties. On examination the canticle is shown to be an ancient text, later than Moses, that is put on his lips to give it a solemn character. The liturgical canticle is placed at the root of the history of the people of Israel. On that prayerful page there is no lack of reference and links with a few of the psalms or the message of the prophets: hence it was a moving and intense expression of the faith of Israel.

The Lord is not anonymous, brute energy, but a loving father who acts, judges his creatures, but with great mercy

2. Moses' canticle is longer than the passage used in the office of Lauds, which is only the prelude. Some scholars think identify in the composition a literary gender that is technically defined with the Hebrew word "rib", namely, "quarrel", "court litigation". The image of God present in the Bible is not at all that of a dark being, an anonymous and brute energy, an incomprehensible fact. Instead, he is a person who experiences sentiments, acts and reacts, loves and condemns, participates in the life of his creatures and is not indifferent to their actions. So, in our case, the Lord convokes a sort of trial, in the presence of witnesses, denounces the crimes of the accused people, exacts a punishment, but lets his verdict be permeated by infinite mercy. Let us now follow the traces of this event, even if only reflecting on the verses proposed by the liturgy.

God is abidingly faithful in his love unlike his faithless creatures

3. First of all he mentions the cosmic spectator-witnesses: "Give ear, O heavens, ... let the earth hearken ..." (Dt 32,1). In this symbolic trial Moses acts almost as a public prosecutor. His word is effective and fruitful, like the prophetic word, expression of the divine word. Note the significant flow of the images that define it: They are signs taken from nature like rain, dew, showers, drizzle and the spraying of water that makes the earth green and covers it with grain stalks (cf. v. 2).

The voice of Moses, prophet and interpreter of the divine word, announces the imminent appearance on the scene of the great judge, the Lord, whose most holy name he pronounces, exalting one of his many attributes. In fact, the Lord is called the Rock (v. 4), a title that is repeated throughout our Canticle (cf. vv., an image that exalts God's stable and unchanging fidelity, so different from the instability and infidelity of the people. The topic is developed with a series of affirmations on divine justice: "how faultless are his deeds, how right all his ways. A faithful God, without deceit, how just and upright he is" (v. 4).

God is like a loving father who has to deal with thoughtless children

4. After the solemn presentation of the supreme Judge who is also an injured party, the objective of the cantor is directed to the accused. In order to describe this, he takes recourse to an effective representation of God as father (cf. v. 6). His much loved creatures are called his children, but, unfortunately, they are "degenerate children" (cf. v. 5). In fact, we know that already in the Old Testament there is an idea of God as a solicitous father in his meetings with his children who often disappoint him (Ex 4,22; Dt 8,5; Ps 102 [103],13; Sir 51,10; Is 1,2; 63,16; Hos 11,1-4). Because of this, the denunciation is not cold but impassioned: "Is the Lord to be thus repaid by you, O stupid and foolish people? Has he not made and established you?" (Dt 32,6). Indeed, rebelling against an implacable sovereign is very different from revolting against a loving father.

In order to make concrete the gravity of the accusation and thus elicit a conversion that flows from the sincerity of the heart, Moses appeals to the memory: "Think back on the days of old, reflect on the years of age upon age" (v. 7). In fact, biblical faith is a "memorial", namely, a rediscovering of God's eternal action spread over time; it is to make present and effective that salvation that the Lord has given and continues to offer man. Hence, the great sin of infidelity  coincides with "forgetfulness", which cancels the memory of the divine presence in us and in history.

Do not forget God's faithful protection and almost maternal love shown during the crossing of the desert

5. The fundamental event that must not be forgotten is that of the crossing of the desert after the flight from Egypt, major topic of Deuteronomy and of the entire Pentateuch. So the terrible and  dramatic journey in the Sinai desert is evoked, "a wasteland of howling desert" (cf. v. 10), as described with an image of strong emotional impact. However, there God bends over his people with amazing tenderness and gentleness. The paternal symbol is intertwined with an allusion to the maternal symbol of the eagle: "He shielded them and cared for them, guarding them as the apple of his eye. As an eagle incites its nestlings forth by hovering over its brood. So he spread his wings to receive them and bore them up on his pinions" (vv. 10-11). Then the way of the desert steppe is transformed into a quiet and serene journey because of the protective mantle of divine love.

The canticle also refers to Sinai, where Israel became the Lord's ally, his "portion" and "hereditary share", namely, the most precious reality (cf. v. 9; Ex 19,5). Thus the canticle of Moses becomes a collective examination of conscience, so that in the end the response to the divine benefits will no longer be sin but fidelity. 

L'Osservatore Romano June 26, 2002
Reprinted with permission