Almighty God, Omniscient Lord, Loving Shepherd

No human being can match God in his work of Creation. No one can measure the vast universe created by God

On Wednesday, 20 November, in the Audience Hall, the Holy Father commented on the Canticle from the Book of Isaiah (Is 40,10-17), which consoles the people with the promise of their return to Jerusalem, and exalts the wonders of an almighty and all-knowing God. It describes the Lord as a shepherd who not only leads his sheep but goes with them on their way, tenderly feeding and caring for them. Compared to the "God of Israel", the nations and far-flung islands are no more than a "drop in the bucket" or "rust on the scales" (40,15). And yet, as the Church Fathers remind us, the Son of God who with his Father holds all of creation in his hand is the same Lord who was born in a humble manger. Before him we bow down in prayerful adoration. Here is a translation of the Pope's 58th catechesis on the Psalms.

1. The book of the great prophet Isaiah, who lived in the eighth century B.C., also contains the voices of other prophets who were his disciples and successors. This is the case of the one whom Biblical scholars have called "Deutero-Isaiah" , the prophet of Israel's return from the Babylonian exile which took place in the sixth century B.C. His work forms the chapters 40-55 of the Book of Isaiah and it is from one of these chapters that the Church has taken the Canticle just proclaimed that has become part of the Liturgy of Lauds.

This Canticle consists of two parts: the first two verses come from the end of a magnificent oracle of consolation that proclaims the return of the exiles to Jerusalem, under the leadership of God himself (cf. Is 40,1-11). The subsequent verses form the beginning of an apologetic discourse that exalts God's omniscience and omnipotence and also subjects to harsh criticism the makers of idols.

Almighty God the powerful King is the tender Shepherd who leads Israel back from the exile

2. Thus at the beginning of the liturgical text, the powerful figure of God appears, who returns to Jerusalem preceded by his trophies, just as Jacob had returned to the Holy Land preceded by his flocks (cf. Gn 31,17; 32,17). God's trophies are the exiled Hebrews whom he snatched out of the hands of their conquerors. God is then depicted "like a shepherd" (Is 40,11). Frequently in the Bible and in other ancient traditions, this image evokes the idea of leadership and kingship, but here his traits are above all gentle and cherishing, for the shepherd is also the travelling companion of his sheep (cf. Ps 22[23]). He cares for his flock, not only by feeding it and caring that it does not go stray, but also tenderly bending over his lambs and his ewes with their young (cf. Is 40,11).

The greatness of God the Creator cannot be measured by limited human wisdom

3. When the description of the entry of the Lord, King and Shepherd onto the scene is over, there is a reflection on his way of acting as Creator of the universe. No one can match him in this grandiose, colossal work: certainly no man and even less so the idols, dead and impotent beings. The prophet then makes use of a series of rhetorical questions which already contain their answers. They are uttered in a kind of public trial: no one can compete with God nor claim for himself his immense power, his unlimited wisdom.

No one can measure the vast universe created by God. The prophet makes us understand how human instruments are ridiculously inadequate for the task. Furthermore, God was a solitary architect; no one was able to help or advise him in so immense a project as the creation of the cosmos (cf. vv. 13-14).

In his 18th Baptismal Catechesis, on the basis of our canticle, St Cyril of Jerusalem suggests that we not measure God with the measure of our human limitations: "To you, poor weak man that you
are, India is far from the land of the Goths, Spain from Persia. But to God, who holds the whole earth in the hollow of His hand, all things are near". (Le catechesi, Rome 1993, p. 408; Catechesis 18, The Works of St Cyril of Jerusalem, vol. 2, p. 121, CUA Press, 1970).

God's lordship extends to the nations who populate the earth

4. After celebrating God's omnipotence in creation, the prophet describes his lordship over history, namely, over the nations, over humanity who populates the earth. The inhabitants of the 
known territories, but also those of the remote regions that the Bible calls the distant "isles", are a microscopic reality in relation to the Lord's infinite greatness. The images are brilliant and intense: the nations are compared to "a drop in the bucket", the "rust on the scales", "powder" (in Italian, a grain of dust) (Is 40,15).

No one would be able to offer a sacrifice worthy of this grandiose Lord and King: all the sacrificial victims of the earth would not suffice, nor all the forests of the cedars of Lebanon to fuel the fire of this holocaust (cf. v. 16). The prophet brings the human being to the consciousness of his limitations before the infinite grandeur and sovereign omnipotence of God. The conclusion is lapidary: "All the nations are a nothing before him, as nothing and emptiness are they accounted by him" (v. 17).

Almighty God who is infinite, who keeps creation in existence, in the Incarnation of his Son came down to his creation

5. The faithful person is therefore invited from the beginning of the day to adore the Almighty Lord. St Gregory of Nyssa, a Father of the Church of Cappadocia (fourth century) meditated on the Canticle of Isaiah this way: "When we hear the word 'almighty', our conception is this, that God sustains in being all intelligible things as well as all things of a material nature. For this reason he sits upon the circle of the earth, for this reason, he holds the ends of the earth in his hands, for this reason he measures out heaven with the span and measures the waters in the hollow of his hand. For this reason he comprehends in himself all the intelligible creation, that all things may remain in existence controlled by His encompassing power" (Teologia trinitaria, Milan 1994; Against Eunomius, p. 120, col. 1, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Wm. B Eerdmans, reprinted 1979).

For his part, St Jerome halts with wonder before another amazing truth: that of Christ who, "though he was in the form of God ... emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of man" (Phil 2,6-7). The infinite, all-powerful God, he remarks, made himself small and finite. St Jerome contemplates him in the stable of Bethlehem and exclaims: "He within whose closed fist the whole world is held, is contained by the narrow confines of a manger" (Lettera 22,39 in: Opera scelte, I, Turin 1971, p. 379; The Letters of St Jerome, vol. 1, Letters 1-22, p. 176, Newman Press - Paulist Press, Ramsey NJ, 1963).

L'Osservatore Romano November 27, 2002
Reprinted with permission