'I will be your God!'
The Lord's action is never intended to condemn or eliminate sinners; after suffering and purification, a new dawn breaks for all who believe
On Wednesday, 10 September, the Holy Father was driven from Castel Gandolfo to St Peter's Square for the General Audience. The Pope commented on the canticle found in Ezekiel 36:24-28 which, he said, was written in the tragic time of the destruction of Jerusalem followed by the Babylonian Exile and "seeks to capture the deep meaning of the tragedy that the people lived in those years". Yet this Canticle is full of hope. "Ezekiel's message", the Pope said, "stresses another, far more surprising aspect: humanity is, in fact, destined to be born to new life", and its "first symbol is that of the 'heart' which, in biblical language, suggests interiority". God will tear out "the 'heart of stone' that is cold and hard, a sign of the persistence of evil", and replace it with a " 'heart of flesh', that is, a source of life and love". The following is a translation of the Holy Father's Catechesis, which was given in Italian.
1. The Canticle that has just echoed in our ears and hearts was composed by one of the great prophets of Israel, Ezekiel, a witness of one of the most tragic ages the Jewish people lived through: the destruction of the Kingdom of Judea and its capital, Jerusalem, followed by the bitter exile in Babylon (sixth century B.C.). The passage that has become part of the Christian prayer of Lauds is an extract from chapter 36 of Ezekiel.
The context of this passage, transformed into a liturgical hymn, seeks to capture the deep meaning of the tragedy that the people lived in those years. The sin of idolatry had contaminated the land that the Lord had given to Israel as an inheritance. In the final analysis it was this more than anything else that was responsible for the loss of the homeland and dispersal among the nations. In fact, God is not indifferent to good and evil; he enters the history of humanity mysteriously with his judgment that sooner or later unmasks evil, defends its victims and points out the way of justice.
God's action never aims to ruin sinners but to convert them
2. However, the goal of God's action is never the ruin, the pure and simple condemnation or elimination, of the sinner. It was the Prophet Ezekiel himself who cited these divine words: "Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?... For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone; so return, and live" (18:22, 23).
In this light we can understand the meaning of our Canticle that is filled with hope and salvation. After purification through trial and suffering, the dawn of a new era is about to break, as the Prophet Jeremiah had already announced, speaking of a "new covenant" between the Lord and Israel (cf. Jer 31:31-34). Ezekiel himself, in chapter 11 of his prophetic book, had proclaimed these divine words: "I will give them a new heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them; and they shall be my people, and I will be their God" (11:19-20).
In our Canticle (cf. Ez 36:24-28), the prophet takes up this oracle and completes it with a marvellous explanation: the "new spirit" given by God to the children of his people will be his Spirit, the Spirit of God himself (cf. v. 27).
Humanity is to be born to new life, symbolized by the heart of flesh
3. Thus, not only is a purification proclaimed, expressed in the sign of the water that washes away the stains on the conscience. There is not only the aspect of liberation from evil and sin (cf. v. 25), necessary though it may be. Ezekiel's message stresses another, far more surprising aspect: humanity is, in fact, destined to be born to new life. The first symbol is that of the "heart" which, in biblical language, suggests interiority, the personal conscience. God will tear from our breasts the "heart of stone" that is cold and hard, a sign of the persistence of evil. Into them he will put a "heart of flesh", that is, a source of life and love (cf. v. 26). The life-giving spirit that brought creatures to life in the creation (cf. Gn 2:7), will be replaced in the new economy of grace by the Holy Spirit, who sustains us, moves and guides us toward the light of truth and pours out "God's love... into our hearts" (Rom 5:5).
In 'new creation', human beings will no longer be enslaved to sin
4. Thus will emerge that "new creation" which St Paul was to describe (cf. II Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15), when the "old self" in us, the "sinful body", would pass away, so that "we might no longer be enslaved to sin" (Rom 6:6), but new creatures, transformed by the Spirit of the risen Christ: "You have put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator" (Col 3:9-10; cf. Rom 6:6). The prophet Ezekiel proclaims a new people which the New Testament would see as having been gathered together by God himself through the work of his Son. This community, possessing "a heart of flesh" and imbued with the "Spirit", would experience the living and active presence of God himself, who would enliven believers, acting in them with his efficacious grace; "All who keep his commandments abide in him", St John was to say, "and he in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit which he has given us" (I Jn 3:24).
The Lord will set believers free from their sins and wickedness
5. Let us end our meditation on the Canticle of Ezekiel by listening to St Cyril of Jerusalem who, in his Third Baptismal Catechesis, delineates in this prophetic passage the people of Christian Baptism.
"Through Baptism", he recalls, "all sins are forgiven, even the most serious transgressions". The Bishop therefore says to his listeners: "Have faith, Jerusalem, the Lord will remove your wickedness from you (cf. Zep 3:14-15). The Lord will cleanse you from your misdeeds...; he 'will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses' (Ez 36:25). The angels will encircle you rejoicing and they will soon sing: 'Who is that coming up from the wilderness', immaculate, and 'leaning upon her beloved?' (Sg 8:5). In fact, it is the soul, formerly a slave and now free to address as her adopted brother her Lord, who says to her, accepting her sincere resolution, 'Behold, you are beautiful, beautiful!' (Sg 4:1)…. Thus, he exclaims, alluding to the fruits of a confession made with a clear conscience,... may heaven deign that you all... keep alive the remembrance of these words and draw fruits from them, expressing them in holy deeds in order to present yourselves faultless before the mystical Bridegroom and obtain from the Father the forgiveness of your sins" (n. 16; Le Catechesi, Rome 1993, pp. 79-80).
L'Osservatore Romano September 17, 2003
Reprinted with permission