For more reflections on the Basilica Hymns of each season, purchase Perpetual Jubilee: Meditations on the Chaldean Liturgical Year on Amazon.com.
Immeasurable in Miles
When we are stuck with something seemingly impossible, our two options are to do the best we can or give up entirely. Depending on the situation, either one of these options could be the right thing to do. But what if something is not “seemingly” impossible, but actually impossible? Is that a clear sign that we should give up, or can we still try our best, knowing for certain that we can never reach our goal? And what would be the point of such a futile exercise?
It is impossible, on earth or in heaven, for a human mind to comprehend the Nature of God. On earth, it is difficult even to get a hint of God’s essence, and even this hint is completely impossible without his help, his self-revelation and his grace.
If this were the whole story, we would have no problem: we could simply give up. But there is more: this near-impossible task of knowing God is the deepest drive in the human heart. It is the most important thing we can do; it is what gives meaning to our life. And so the choice is practically out of our hands: impossible though it is to comprehend God, we must try our best anyway, if our life is to find its meaning. Even if we cannot determine the very edges of the ocean and its depth, we must at least jump in and swim.
But there is more wisdom offered, and more hope than we expect. God, who gave us this desire to know him, does not abandon us to a pointless pursuit. Though on our own we have trouble even knowing that he exists (and this is evidenced by those who deny his existence), with his help we can come much nearer to our goal. The wisdom offered by the revelation of God to his people, beginning with Abraham as encapsulated by the holy Scriptures, is generally a humbling reality. That is, almost all of our talk about God is expressed in terms of un-knowing rather than knowing. For example, when we say that God is “immortal,” all we are saying is that he is “not mortal.” It is not a positive, solid statement that we understand; it is simply saying that God is not like we are in this particular way. The same goes for many of our terms: “infinite” only means “not finite;” “immutable” means “not changing;” etc. Even the terms we use that sound positive are really not so: “all-powerful” really only means (to us) “not weak, as we are,” “holy” means “not sinful,” and so on. The actual, positive meaning of these terms is something beyond our understanding entirely. In other words, we know that these words and statements are true, but we do not know what they mean. That is the humbling reality of our talk about God.
The great irony is that we are so limited in our language about God despite the fact that we have abundant evidence of his goodness. St. Paul even blames those who deny God despite everything they see around them: “For what can be known about God is evident to them, because God made it evident to them. Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made.” (Romans 1:19-20). In other words, if we want to know what God is like, we can simply look at the universe, at nature, at all the things he has made, and, even if we will not find precise, scientific terminology, we will at least have some grasp of his Nature. But, again, even this grasp is minute and insufficient to describe the enormity of God’s Essence:
The mouth of creatures is unable to relate the greatness of your Wisdom, O Great Unlimited Sea, for the things of heaven and earth, with their adornments, are unable to teach us of your Greatness.
Is there any evidence missing in this picture? And piece of the puzzle we have neglected? If in creation we have a glimpse of the goodness of the Creator, perhaps we should look to the account of creation for another hint. On the sixth day, God created cattle and other animals, and then, speaking again, he said “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” (Genesis 1:26). If creation somehow reflects God’s Nature, all the more so must man, because man is his image. But how this reflection occurs, and in what way man is God’s image, is left to other hymns to explain. The Basilica Hymn of the Fifth Sunday of Elijah mentions this fact only in passing, only as a building block to another, deeper point:
But, through our wretched [human] nature, you have brought us near to your knowledge…
A simple glimpse at a newspaper will affirm the adjective “wretched” used to describe human nature above, and the concurrent amazement that through this wretchedness somehow God makes himself known to us. But there is something inappropriate about this: God is in no way wretched, and so this tension within human nature between its ugly sinfulness and its splendid imaging of God’s nature is unresolved when left alone. But God leaves nothing alone; he pursues and perfects till the end.
Adam, the first father of humanity, failed, and through him, the source of human nature, the head of our race, all his descendents fell with him. The imagery of “head” and “body” used in St. Paul’s writings comes to the foreground in the theology of the Church of the East, where because the initial “head” of humanity (Adam) failed, the “body” (the rest of us) begins to decay. It was not until Christ, the true Image of God and the Head of the Church, came did the human race become regenerated, reborn into this new Body, with Christ as the head. The ultimate “re-capitulation,” or “head replacement” occurred on the Cross, where Christ replaced Adam’s disobedience by his obedience, and took his place at the Head of humanity.
The question changes, therefore. It is no longer a matter of us knowing God, but of God knowing us in Christ and as members of Christ. We had fallen away from our true Head, but Christ became one of us to rescue us from that fall, to bind us to himself as his mystical Body, and to present us to the Father as his own members. That is why St. Paul describes the turn from idolatry to the worship of the true God in terms of being known: “…but now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and destitute elemental powers?” (Galatians 4:9).
Christ is the Head who gives meaning to our lives, who allows us to understand ourselves as belonging to God, and therefore to understand, in some mystical way, God himself in Christ:
…and through the shame and contempt of the cross, you have made creation into a true uncorrupted body for yourself, you who are the Head who pours forth blessings and new life in the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, we all cry out and say: thanksgiving be to the mercies that had pity on our nature!