GOD, HIS NATURE, ESSENCE AND PERFECTIONS

"Before the mountains were made, or the earth and the world was formed; from eternity and to eternity Thou art God" (Ps.89:2). "Behold, God is great, exceeding our knowledge" (Job.36:26).

People in various localities have experienced devastating floods and droughts in recent years. Stories of tragedy, of suffering, and of heroism in localities through which the surging, destructive flood-waters swept, have been told repeatedly. One of these stories is particularly appropriate here. A Catholic man was boarding at a home where the head of the house was an infidel. He believed neither in a God nor in eternity. Repeatedly, he had ridiculed the staunch Catholic about his God and his religion. When the flood came, this infidel's home was also engulfed. The Catholic boarder helped the infidel move his household goods to the second storey. But the flood-waters kept on creeping up the stairs, step by steps, until it was about ready to enter the second storey. Here the infidel fell on his knees and begged God to let the waters recede and spare his home.

Calm in his faith and seeing his turn had come, the Catholic man turned to the infidel, and said smilingly: "You fool, you always told me you did not believe in a God."

"Yes," replied the infidel embarrassingly, "but Pat, I am in danger now."

My friends, the lesson is this. There are few atheists or infidels who do not believe in a God in times of danger or distress. Even through life few sincere infidels are to be found. For, as St. Augustine remarks, "no  one will deny the existence of God but those who would find it to their advantage that no such Being existed." And in our last discourse we demonstrated from reason, history, and experience that belief in God has been universal from the dawn of creation to the present time. However, the admission of the existence of God only arouse our curiosity further, to know what God is and what are God's perfections. As far as our human limitations permit, we shall attempt to answer these questions today.

(O Jesus, assist us with Thy grace!)

Nature of God.--Many years ago there was a pagan king who ruled over Syracuse, a city on the island of Sicily. His name was Hiero. One day he summoned a very learned man, named Simonides, and asked him to answer the same perplexing question: "What is God?" Simonides asked for one day's time, so that he might reflect and consider carefully before giving his answer. The next day the learned man asked for two more days. Then he asked for still more time. Impatiently, the king summoned Simmonides and demanded the reason why he had refused an answer to his question: "What is God?"  The wise man replied: "The longer I consider the question, the less I seem to know about it."

My friends, were we asked the same question, "What is God?" we might give the same reply: "The longer I consider the question, the less I seem to know about it." It is true, little Catechism asks the same question: "What is God?" and answers: "God is an eternal, infinitely pure spirit, who cannot be seen by our bodily eyes." While far from satisfactory, this is the best answer we can give. Our human intellects are too limited to conceive, even in our wildest imaginations, what God really is. When we poor mortals attempt to speak about the infinite God, like prattling babes we can but exclaim with St. Augustine: "Lord, we do but lisp when we speak of Thee." Or we must say with holy Job (36:26): "Behold, God is great, exceeding our knowledge." And St. Paul adds: "Who only hath immortality and inhabiteth light inaccessible, whom no man hath seen nor can see" (1Tim.6:16).

But, perhaps the Angels could tell us what God is? No, even though we were to ask the Cherubim and Seraphim, the angelic spirits who behold God face to face, and are endowed with the highest created knowledge and wisdom, even they would have to confess that they are unable to tell us just what God is. Both we and the Angels know the nature and essence of God only in so far as He has seen fit to reveal them to us. And three times in Holy Scripture do we find God speaking about Himself. From these three revelations our reason enables us to acquire some knowledge about the nature and essence of God.

(1) First, we find God revealing Himself to Moses (Exod.3:2-14). Moses was tending Jethro's flock near Mount Horeb. Suddenly he noticed a flame of fire burst forth from the midst of a bush. He was astonished, because the flame did not consume the bush. He approached to see what it might be. Then a voice called out from the burning bush: "Moses, Moses, come not nearer. Put off the shoes from thy feet; for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground. I am the God of thy fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." Moses hid his face, for he could not bear to look up. Then God told Moses that he was to lead the chosen people from Egypt, the land of bondage, into the Promised Land. In humility Moses, the shepherd, addressed the Lord as follows: "Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt?" God replied: "I will be with thee." But Moses said: "The children of Israel will ask me: 'Who hath sent thee? What is his name?' What then shall I say to them?" And the Lord answered: "I am Who am. Thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel: 'He Who is, the Lord, the God of your fathers, hath sent me to you.' This is my name for ever."

"I am Who am!" Here God reveals to man that He is eternal, without a past, present or a future. "It is My essence that I always am, of Myself, without a beginning." In lieu of this revelation, King David could exclaim later: "Before the mountains were made and the earth with its circumference, Thou art, O God, from eternity to eternity," always the self-same God (Ps.89:2).  And just as God is without a beginning, so the same King David proclaims God to be without end. "In the beginning, O Lord, Thou didst found the earth; and the heavens are the work of Thy hands. They shall perish but Thou remainest; and all of them shall grown like a garment, but Thou art always the self-same and Thy years shall not fail" (Ps., ci.27 sq.). With the words, "I am Who am" God therefore revealed to us that He is eternal--without beginning, without end, with no growth and no change, always as He is, was, and will be, the self-same eternal God.

(2) The second and third revelation of God's nature and essence came to us by way of Christ, the Son of God. His manner of coming into the world and His subsequent miracles proved that He is truly God. He had openly stated: "I and the Father are one." When asked by the high priest: "Art Thou the Christ, the Son of the blessed God?" He said: "I am" (Mark.14:61). On another occasion when St. Philip said to Our Lord: "Show us the Father, and it is enough for us," our Lord expressed surprise in His answer: "Have I been so long a time with you; and have you not known Me? Philip, he that seeth Me seeth the Father also" (John, 5:8). And to the doubting Thomas, Jesus said: "I am the way, the truth and the life" (John.14:6).

"I am the life" says Christ. Much the same do we read in the Old Testament when God formed man. In Genesis, 2:7,  we read: "And the Lord God formed man of the slime of the earth; and breathed into his face the breath of life; and man became a living soul." In the Old Testament, God speaks to Moses: "I am who am." In the New Testament, Christ tells us: "I am." Hence, both reveal in God an eternity of being and of life, two qualities revealing to us the nature and essence of God.

(3) The third revelation of the nature of God was made by our Divine Saviour in His conversation with the Samaritan woman at the fountain or well of Sichar: Through prophecies, He reveals to her that He is divine. Then He proceeds to tell her that "God is a spirit; and they that adore Him, must adore Him in spirit and in truth" (John.4:24). The woman replied: "I know that the Messiah cometh (Who is called Christ); therefore, when He is come, He will tell us all things. Jesus saith to her: 'I am He, who am speaking to thee.' " She hastened back to the city, saying: "He told me all things whatsoever I have done." She returned quickly to Jesus with many others. "and they to the woman: "We now believe, not for thy saying; for we ourselves have heard Him, and know that this is indeed the Savior of the world."

Here again, Jesus made it clear to all that His divinity was hidden under His humanity; that God as such had neither body, form, size, color, nor any other qualities of created human matter. But the true God is a spirit who cannot be seen with bodily eyes; that God is omniscient, knowing all things; God is by nature eternal; God is the possessor of eternal life.  Therefore, Christ, by becoming Man, supplies us with the most vivid portrayal of the nature of God: "I am who am, . . . I am the life, . . . God is a spirit." That is why, in answer to the question, "What is God?" our Catechism answers: "God is an eternal, infinitely pure spirit, who cannot be seen with our bodily eyes." With these revelations, our own reasoning powers enable us to draw many other conclusions about the nature and essence of God. Let us see.

Reason.--From God's own words,  "I am who am . . . . I am the life . . . . God is a spirit," my reason tells me that God is eternal, without beginning or end, ever the same, depending on no one for His being. Our little, weak, finite intellects cannot measure God's eternal existence according to years, or even thousands of years. Times only began with the creation of the world. Before that there was no measure of time. Days and years are for us, and for all created beings who have a beginning, increase, grow old, and pass away. Therefore, St. Peter says: "With God a day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as a day"  (2 Pet.3:8). "Yesterday, and today, and the same forever" (Heb.13:8). 

Here, some might ask: "Where, then, was God before and beginning of time?" May I suggest the answer with another question, namely: "Where was the machine before man assembled it?" The idea was in the inventor's mind, giving pleasure and joy to the possessor of all the details of the machine. It came into being when the man assembled the material according to his idea. But to create,  God had but to will. No matter was needed. Now, there can be but one answer to the question: "Where was God before time began?" and it is this: "God was in Himself,  occupied in contemplating His essence of perfection, loving Himself, enjoying His glory, having no need of any of the creatures which His power and good have since drawn out of nothing."

Meaning of eternity.--What, then, is eternity? Reason tells me that the answer can best be found from the things we see and know about us. Look at the earth. There was a time when it was not here. And from Holy Writ I know that a time shall come when it will be no more.  Look at this church, with its altars, statues, pews, etc.  It has stood for a number of years. Yet, there was a time when not a single board, not a single nail, not one drop of the paint used on this church existed; a time when no one had even thought of building a church in your city. One can say the same about every work wrought by the hands of man. We can take our minds back to when there was not a single house in this town; when there were no cities at all such as we know them now; no nations such as exist today; when no human being breathed on this earth. There is nothing to prevent our going back further still, to a time before the terrestrial globe itself was formed; when there was neither sun, nor moon, nor stars, nor heavens; when the Angels had not been created; when nothing existed except God alone. But we cannot go back in our minds to a time when there was no God. "I am who am . . . . I am the life." God has no beginning. He always was, and He always will be. He is eternal.

Unchangeable.--From this it follows further, according to my reasoning, that God must also unchangeable, since He is without beginning and without end. "As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be world without end. Amen" are words we use daily in our prayers. On earth, everything comes and goes, everything changes and renews itself. Man grows and declines; he learns and forgets; he labors and rests. Nature is the same; the earth has its seasons; plants and animals change. But God does not change. All in Him is unalterable. He is unchangeable in His existence, because He knows no childhood nor old age. He is unchangeable in His knowledge, for He knows from all eternity what has been, what is, and what will be. He is unchangeable in His will, for what He wills today and He has always willed, and He wills for all time to come.

Thus, when we say that God repents, that we can bend His wrath, or that He pardons, etc., we mean merely that we change in His regard; and that, by our virtues or by our vices, we oblige Him to reward or to punish us as He decreed from all eternity. Our soul, in relation to God in this respect, is much like the light of the sun, which may be shut out from the room by drawing down the blinds.  It is not the sun that changes, or ceases to give warmth and light, but it is ourselves that change.

Of God it is said: "Thy years shall not fail" (Ps. 101:28). And as we give free rein to our thoughts, and let them speed on through the countless centuries yet to come, until the end of the world when all men will be dead, the sun burned out and the stars fallen from the heavens--such a time will in the end of all things be reached. And if we think on further and ever further still, through as many years as there are leaves on the trees, or drops of water in the ocean, grains of sand on the seashore, surely, we must reach the end when God will cease to exist! But no, reason and revelation tell me: "From eternity to eternity Thou art the self-same God" (Ps.89:2).

Conclusion.--Our conclusion from all this, must be that God is eternal and unchangeable. With Him eternity is one majestic present, a constant day, an ocean of delights without bottom, without boundaries, without change, without end. And if you wanted to reckon eternity according to hundred of millions of years, and hundreds of thousand of millions of years, you would still find neither beginning, nor middle, nor end. For eternity is always the unchangeable present. Hence, with God, who is eternal, to whom "a day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as a day," everything is always present, no past, no future. O majestic eternity, eternal presence of God! Mountains and valleys, countries and nations, have disappeared. The most powerful kingdoms, cities and places have perished. Emperors and kings, kingdoms and armies, countless hosts of men have gone down into their graves. We too shall sink into our graves; and after us millions of others will follow. Everything will pass away as a shadow. Even the heavens and earth will pass away, but God remains eternally the same: "I am who am . . . . I am life." "For of Him and by Him and in Him are all things; to Him be glory and honor for ever and ever" (Rom.11:36). Amen.