Today’s post continues my series on the Catechetical letters of St. Cyril of Jerusalem. His sixth letter is featured in today’s post, specifically the beginning of it. The topic is the nature of God:
Isaiah 45:16, 17. (Sept.)
Sanctify yourselves unto Me, O islands. Israel is saved by the Lord with an everlasting salvation; they shall not be ashamed, neither shall they be confounded for ever, etc.
1. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Corinthians 1:3 Blessed also be His Only-begotten Son. For with the thought of God let the thought of Father at once be joined, that the ascription of glory to the Father and the Son may be made indivisible. For the Father has not one glory, and the Son another, but one and the same, since He is the Father’s Only-begotten Son; and when the Father is glorified, the Son also shares the glory with Him, because the glory of the Son flows from His Father’s honour: and again, when the Son is glorified, the Father of so great a blessing is highly honoured.
2. Now though the mind is most rapid in its thoughts, yet the tongue needs words, and a long recital of intermediary speech. For the eye embraces at once a multitude of the ‘starry quire;’ but when any one wishes to describe them one by one, which is the Morning-star, and which, the Evening-star, and which each one of them, he has need of many words. In like manner again the mind in the briefest moment compasses earth and sea and all the bounds of the universe; but what it conceives in an instant, it uses many words to describe. Yet forcible as is the example I have mentioned, still it is after all weak and inadequate. For of God we speak not all we ought (for that is known to Him only), but so much as the capacity of human nature has received, and so much as our weakness can bear. For we explain not what God is but candidly confess that we have not exact knowledge concerning Him. For in what concerns God to confess our ignorance is the best knowledge. Therefore magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt His Name together —all of us in common, for one alone is powerless; nay rather, even if we be all united together, we shall yet not do it as we ought. I mean not you only who are here present, but even if all the nurslings of the whole Church throughout the world, both that which now is and that which shall be, should meet together, they would not be able worthily to sing the praises of their Shepherd.
3. A great and honourable man was Abraham, but only great in comparison with men; and when he came before God, then speaking the truth candidly he says, I am earth and ashes. Genesis 18:27 He did not say ‘earth,’ and then cease, lest he should call himself by the name of that great element; but he added ‘and ashes,’ that he might represent his perishable and frail nature. Is there anything, he says, smaller or lighter than ashes? For take, says he, the comparison of ashes to a house, of a house to a city, a city to a province, a province to the Roman Empire, and the Roman Empire to the whole earth and all its bounds, and the whole earth to the heaven in which it is embosomed;— the earth, which bears the same proportion to the heaven as the centre to the whole circumference of a wheel, for the earth is no more than this in comparison with the heaven : consider then that this first heaven which is seen is less than the second, and the second than the third, for so far Scripture has named them, not that they are only so many, but because it was expedient for us to know so many only. And when in thought you have surveyed all the heavens, not yet will even the heavens be able to praise God as He is, nay, not if they should resound with a voice louder than thunder. But if these great vaults of the heavens cannot worthily sing God’s praise, when shall ‘earth and ashes,’ the smallest and least of things existing, be able to send up a worthy hymn of praise to God, or worthily to speak of God, that sits upon the circle of the earth, and holds the inhabitants thereof as grasshoppers Isaiah 40:22 .
4. If any man attempt to speak of God, let him first describe the bounds of the earth. You dwell on the earth, and the limit of this earth which is your dwelling you know not: how then shall you be able to form a worthy thought of its Creator? You behold the stars, but their Maker you behold not: count these which are visible, and then describe Him who is invisible, Who tells the number of the stars, and calls them all by their names. Violent rains lately came pouring down upon us, and nearly destroyed us: number the drops in this city alone: nay, I say not in the city, but number the drops on your own house for one single hour, if you can, but you can not. Learn then your own weakness; learn from this instance the mightiness of God: for He has numbered the drops of rain , which have been poured down on all the earth, not only now but in all time. The sun is a work of God, which, great though it be, is but a spot in comparison with the whole heaven; first gaze steadfastly upon the sun, and then curiously scan the Lord of the sun. Seek not the things that are too deep for you, neither search out the things that are above your strength: what is commanded you, think thereupon Sirach 3:21-22 .
5. But some one will say, If the Divine substance is incomprehensible, why then do you discourse of these things? So then, because I cannot drink up all the river, am I not even to take in moderation what is expedient for me? Because with eyes so constituted as mine I cannot take in all the sun, am I not even to look upon him enough to satisfy my wants? Or again, because I have entered into a great garden, and cannot eat all the supply of fruits, would you have me go away altogether hungry? I praise and glorify Him that made us; for it is a divine command which says, Let every breath praise the Lord. I am attempting now to glorify the Lord, but not to describe Him, knowing nevertheless that I shall fall short of glorifying Him worthily, yet deeming it a work of piety even to attempt it at all. For the Lord Jesus encourages my weakness, by saying, No man has seen God at any time.
6. What then, some man will say, is it not written, The little ones’ Angels do always behold the face of My Father which is in heaven Matthew 18:10? Yes, but the Angels see God not as He is, but as far as they themselves are capable. For it is Jesus Himself who says, Not that any man has seen the Father, save He which is of God, He has seen the Father. John 6:46 The Angels therefore behold as much as they can bear, and Archangels as much as they are able; and Thrones and Dominions more than the former, but yet less than His worthiness: for with the Son the Holy Ghost alone can rightly behold Him: for He searches all things, and knows even the deep things of God 1 Corinthians 2:10: as indeed the Only-begotten Son also, with the Holy Ghost, knows the Father fully: For neither, says He, knows any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whom the Son will reveal Him. Matthew 11:27 For He fully beholds, and, according as each can bear, reveals God through the Spirit: since the Only-begotten Son together with the Holy Ghost is a partaker of the Father’s Godhead. He, who was begotten knows Him who begot; and He Who begot knows Him who is begotten. Since Angels then are ignorant (for to each according to his own capacity does the Only-begotten reveal Him through the Holy Ghost, as we have said), let no man be ashamed to confess his ignorance. I am speaking now, as all do on occasion: but how we speak, we cannot tell: how then can I declare Him who has given us speech? I who have a soul, and cannot tell its distinctive properties, how shall I be able to describe its Giver?
7. For devotion it suffices us simply to know that we have a God; a God who is One, a living , an ever-living God; always like Himself ; who has no Father, none mightier than Himself, no successor to thrust Him out from His kingdom: Who in name is manifold, in power infinite, in substance uniform. For though He is called Good, and Just, and Almighty and Sabaoth , He is not on that account diverse and various; but being one and the same, He sends forth countless operations of His Godhead, not exceeding here and deficient there, but being in all things like Himself. Not great in loving-kindness only, and little in wisdom, but with wisdom and loving-kindness in equal power: not seeing in part, and in part devoid of sight; but being all eye, and all ear, and all mind : not like us perceiving in part and in part not knowing; for such a statement were blasphemous, and unworthy of the Divine substance. He foreknows the things that be; He is Holy, and Almighty, and excels all in goodness, and majesty, and wisdom: of Whom we can declare neither beginning, nor form, nor shape. For you have neither heard His voice at any time, nor seen His shape John 5:37, says Holy Scripture. Wherefore Moses says also to the Israelites: And take good heed to your own souls, for you saw no similitude. Deuteronomy 4:15 For if it is wholly impossible to imagine His likeness, how shall thought come near His substance?
8. There have been many imaginations by many persons, and all have failed. Some have thought that God is fire; others that He is, as it were, a man with wings, because of a true text ill understood, You shall hide me under the shadow of Your wings. They forgot that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Only-begotten, speaks in like manner concerning Himself to Jerusalem, How often would I have gathered your children together even as a hen does gather her chickens under her wings, and you would not. Matthew 23:37 For whereas God’s protecting power was conceived as wings, they failing to understand this sank down to the level of things human, and supposed that the Unsearchable exists in the likeness of man. Some again dared to say that He has seven eyes, because it is written, seven eyes of the Lord looking upon the whole earth. Zechariah 4:10 For if He has but seven eyes surrounding Him in part, His seeing is therefore partial and not perfect: but to say this of God is blasphemous; for we must believe that God is in all things perfect, according to our Saviour’s word, which says, Your Father in heaven is perfect Matthew 5:48: perfect in sight, perfect in power, perfect in greatness, perfect in foreknowledge, perfect in goodness, perfect in justice, perfect in loving-kindness: not circumscribed in any space, but the Creator of all space, existing in all, and circumscribed by none. Heaven is His throne, but higher is He that sits thereon: and earth is His footstool Isaiah 66:1, but His power reaches unto things under the earth.
9. One He is, everywhere present, beholding all things, perceiving all things, creating all things through Christ: For all things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made. John 1:3 A fountain of every good, abundant and unfailing, a river of blessings, an eternal light of never-failing splendour, an insuperable power condescending to our infirmities: whose very Name we dare not hear. Will you find a footstep of the Lord? says Job, or have you attained unto the least things which the Almighty has made ? If the least of His works are incomprehensible, shall He be comprehended who made them all? Eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for them that love Him. 1 Corinthians 2:9 If the things which God has prepared are incomprehensible to our thoughts, how can we comprehend with our mind Himself who has prepared them? O the depth of the riches, and wisdom, and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out Romans 11:33! says the Apostle. If His judgments and His ways are incomprehensible, can He Himself be comprehended?
10. God then being thus great, and yet greater, (for even were I to change my whole substance into tongue, I could not speak His excellence: nay more, not even if all Angels should assemble, could they ever speak His worth), God being therefore so great in goodness and majesty, man has yet dared to say to a stone that he has graven, You are my God Isaiah 44:17! O monstrous blindness, that from majesty so great came down so low! The tree which was planted by God, and nourished by the rain, and afterwards burnt and turned into ashes by the fire—this is addressed as God, and the true God is despised. But the wickedness of idolatry grew yet more prodigal, and cat, and dog, and wolf were worshipped instead of God: the man-eating lion also was worshipped instead of God, the most loving friend of man. The snake and the serpent , counterfeit of him who thrust us out of Paradise, were worshipped, and He who planted Paradise was despised. And I am ashamed to say, and yet do say it, even onions were worshipped among some. Wine was given to make glad the heart of man : and Dionysus (Bacchus) was worshipped instead of God. God made grain by saying, Let the earth bring forth grass, yielding seed after his kind and after his likeness Genesis 1:11, that bread may strengthen man’s heart : why then was Demeter (Ceres) worshipped? Fire comes forth from striking stones together even to this day: how then was Hephæstus (Vulcan) the creator of fire?
11. Whence came the polytheistic error of the Greeks ? God has no body: whence then the adulteries alleged among those who are by them called gods? I say nothing of the transformations of Zeus into a swan: I am ashamed to speak of his transformations into a bull: for bellowings are unworthy of a god. The god of the Greeks has been found an adulterer, yet are they not ashamed: for if he is an adulterer let him not be called a god. They tell also of deaths , and falls , and thunder-strokes of their gods. Do you see from how great a height and how low they have fallen? Was it without reason then that the Son of God came down from heaven? Or was it that He might heal so great a wound? Was it without reason that the Son came? Or was it in order that the Father might be acknowledged? You have learned what moved the Only-begotten to come down from the throne at God’s right hand. The Father was despised, the Son must needs correct the error: for He Through Whom All Things Were Made must bring them all as offerings to the Lord of all. The wound must be healed: for what could be worse than this disease, that a stone should be worshiped instead of God?