Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Strangely Appropriate

We studied the Book of Tobit for our teen catechism study group tonight. A few minutes before class I stumbled upon an audience by Pope John Paul II on the Canticle of Tobit which I read aloud to the group during class. It was beautiful and moving and seemed, to me at least, strangely appropriate at this difficult time. The book itself is traditionally held up to emphasize the need for almsgiving along with prayer and fasting and for praising God even in the midst of suffering. It is altogether a beautiful and hopeful story. Unfortunately, it is one of the Books of the Bible rejected by Protestants and so the story is not well known. Here is a tidbit from the beautiful Canticle itself:
Blessed is God who lives for ever,
and blessed is his kingdom.
For he afflicts, and he shows mercy;
he leads down to Hades, and brings up again,
and there is no one who can escape his hand.
Acknowledge him before the nations, O sons of Israel;
for he has scattered us among them.
Make his greatness known there,
and exalt him in the presence of all the living;
because he is our Lord and God, he is our Father for ever.
He will afflict us for our iniquities;
and again he will show mercy,
and will gather us from all the nations
among whom you have been scattered.
If you turn to him with all your heart and with all your soul,
to do what is true before him,
then he will turn to you and will not hide his face from you.
But see what he will do with you;
give thanks to him with your full voice.
Here is part of what Pope John Paul II had to say about this Canticle:

2. With this premise, the words of our hymn can make a strong point. They invite us to lift up our eyes on high to "God who lives forever", to his kingdom which "lasts for all ages". From this contemplation of God, the sacred author can offer a short sketch of a theology of history in which he tries to respond to the question which the dispersed and tried People of God are raising: why does God treat us like this? The response turns both to divine justice and mercy: "He chastises you for your injustices, but he will show mercy towards all of you" (v. 5). The chastisement appears thus to be a kind of divine pedagogy, in which the last word is reserved to mercy: "He scourges and then shows mercy, casts down to the depths of the nether world, and he brings up from the great abyss" (v. 2). Suffering, even the Cross, has a positive meaning if lived in accord with God's plan One can have absolute confidence in God who never abandons his creature. Moreover, the words of the hymn lead to another perspective, which attributes a salvific meaning to the situation of suffering, turning the exile into an occasion to praise the works of God: "Praise him, you Israelites, before the Gentiles for though he has scattered you among them, he has shown his greatness even there" (vv. 3-4).

3. From this invitation to read the exile in a providential way, our meditation can be extended to consider the mysteriously positive meaning which suffering assumes when it is lived in abandonment to God's plan. Already in the OT several passages delineate such a theme. Think of the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis (cf. Gn 37,2-36) who was sold by his brothers and destined to be their future saviour. How can we forget the book of Job? Here the innocent man suffers, and doesn't know how to explain his drama in any way except by surrendering to the greatness and wisdom of God (cf. Jb 42,1-16). For us who read these OT passages from a Christian perspective, the point of reference can only be the Cross of Christ which offers a profound response to the mystery of suffering in the world.

Read the rest of Pope John Paul II's General Audience on the Canticle of Tobit here.

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