Friday of Week 32 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Wisdom 13:1-9

Today the author mocks those who fail to find God’s presence in the world around them. Instead, they turn to idolatry and make gods of the things of nature. It is one thing to see God in everything and another to make anything a god, an object of worship. The writer attacks three forms of idolatry (only the first of which is dealt with in today’s reading): the divinisation of natural forces and heavenly bodies, the worship of man-made idols, and the worship of animals.

The author calls “vain” all those who are not aware of the real God in the world around them. ‘Vain’ or ‘empty’ was an epithet often used of false gods. Those who devote themselves to such ‘vanities’ are ‘vain’ themselves. They do not seem to be able to discover “the one who exists” (in some translations: ‘Him-who-is’) in all the good things around them nor, by studying the wonderful works of nature, have they been able to become aware of their Designer or Artificer. ‘The one who exists’ becomes for later Christian philosophers, the ‘Pure Being’, the unique characteristic of God as source of all that comes to be.

Other natural phenomena, instead of leading them to their Maker, are themselves made into gods – fire, wind, the constellations, the power of the sea, the sun and the moon (‘luminaries of heaven’). All these are said to govern the world. People have become hypnotised by their beauty (and sometimes frightened by their power) and so divinised them without realising how much greater their Maker must be as the original Source of such beauty and power. In terms borrowed from the Greek philosophers and to be taken up by Christian philosophers and theologians of a later age, the author tells us that the greatness and beauty of all things gives us an analogy, that is, a faint image of the greatness and beauty of the Origin of all things.

The Old Testament had praised the power and majesty of the creating God, but did not talk of the beauty of the world as a work of art. The author reveals a Greek touch here in his aesthetic sensitivity of God as artist.

And, if it is the power in these phenomena that has impressed them, why can they not come to the conclusion that He who made all these things must be so much more powerful? If the things of the world around us can dazzle us with their beauty, what must their Maker be like:

For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.

However, compared to those who have made gods of human artefacts of gold and silver (dealt with in the following section of the chapter), such people may be less guilty. They are to be commended for their search of God and their eagerness to find him. The author is sympathetic to these people’s problems. They are in search of God, of the ultimate source of meaning, but go astray by becoming dazzled by the beauty of what they see. In a sense, they cannot see the whole forest because of the beauty of this or that tree.

On the other hand, they are not without blame. If they are clever enough to make a study of the world in which they live, how come they have been so slow to find the Master that is behind all? He faults them for having proceeded so far in intellectual speculation and yet failed to come to an awareness of the God who alone gives meaning to all they see.

Later Paul in his Letter to the Romans will also criticise those who, though without the help of revelation, fail to find God in the world around them and create gods out of material things. Later still, St Ignatius Loyola in the final contemplation of his Spiritual Exercises will urge the retreatant to consider that the truth and beauty of the things around him can be but the palest shadow of their Source. They are the signs not only of his truth and beauty, but also of his overwhelming love for us.

We, too, can be so caught up in things that we fail to see through them to the Source behind. As Teilhard de Chardin said, we live in a milieu divin (a ‘divine milieu’), in a world where everything is touched by God. He is the very air we breathe. It is a gift and a great source of peace to be consciously aware of this as we go through our day. And, as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote:

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.

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