Breadth and Length and Height and Depth, Part 3

Prayer for the Readers Eph 3:14-21

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that he may grant you in accord with the riches of his glory to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner self, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to accomplish far more than all we ask or imagine, by the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.[1] 

that you, rooted and grounded in love

We are rooted and grounded in love through the love of the Father who strengthened us in the Spirit and His Son who dwell in our hearts through faith. Rooted in the Holy Spirit, grounded in Christ.

Why both rooted and grounded? The first is a reference from nature: to be rooted, to have established firm roots. This implies that the love which is rooted has grown and become firmly established in the Spirit, who is known by his appearances in the guise of nature, a dove, fire, wind.

Grounded, on the other hand, refers to having laid a firm foundation, make stable, establish. If, indeed, Paul wished to align this with Jesus, it echoes of Jesus own parable of the two houses: Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock. And everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. And it collapsed and was completely ruined. [Mt 7: 24-27] If we have a true love of Jesus and have experienced His unconditional love of us, we, indeed, have a firm foundation upon which to build our lives.

may have strength to comprehend

Here we come to the crux of the matter; all Paul’s prayers that we be strengthened in the Spirit and have Christ dwell within us have been in order that we may have the strength to comprehend. This raises at least two questions: why do we need strength and why just comprehension?

Comprehension, at least as we normally experience it, is a fairly non-taxing activity; we look at something, figure it out and understand it. No biggie. But here, it seems that Paul is in awe of the undertaking, albeit mental, on which we are about to embark. He calls on the big guns, the Spirit and Jesus, to help us in this matter. He foresees that this exploration is an expedition of enormous proportion, covering the breadth and length and height and depth of all reality, of the entire cosmos, and not just spatially, but temporally, encompassing a panoramic view of creation as a manifestation of God’s gift of love to us from the Big Bang through all of Incarnational History down to the present moment.

Not only that but we will be viewing God, God at work in His universe, His creation, His cosmos. If we hearken back to the vistas of the Hebrew Bible, the encounters with God are not only awe-inspiring, they are fear-filled. From Noah, who moved by fear prepared an ark [Heb 11:7] in the middle of nowhere and was thus saved, to Abraham, who realizes he is only dust and ashes but presumes to plead with God not to be angry with him for asking God to spare Sodom. [Gen 18:16-33] Even Moses who cannot look on God’s face and live [Ex 33:20] and Elijah who braved raging wind, earthquake and fire and yet at the sound of the still small sound of God, hid his face in his cloak. [1Kgs 19:13] It seems that Paul anticipates God hurling at us the same challenge with which He met Job’s folly: Gird up your loins now, like a man. I will question you, and you tell me the answers![Job 40:7] After this little jaunt, Paul expects us to be saying with Job: By hearsay I had heard of you, but now my eye has seen you. Therefore I disown what I have said, and repent in dust and ashes. [Job 42:5-6] More dust and ashes. Obviously, a journey of a lifetime, and literally, we will definitely need strength!

But why only comprehension? Why not grokking through involvement? Experience? Immersion? Maybe it does include all of these. καταλαμβάνω, here translated “to comprehend,” is used by Paul in a number of places: to seize the prize in the race [1Cor 9:24]; to achieve a goal [Rom 9:30]; to possess/be possessed by Christ [Phil 3:12]; to be overtaken by [1Thes 5:4]. Thus, at least in his mind, there is a through grasping, mentally and physically, of the object in question. Our English “comprehension” alludes to this totality, to completely lay hold of, seize, engulf. To be so tenacious, we must indeed be strengthened, since the object we are attempting to grasp is the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s Love, which is coextensive with God Himself, for God is, as we know, Love.

with all the holy ones

This is an interesting phrase to throw in the middle of this preparation for the examination of God. It reflects Paul’s ever present consciousness of the community, the Body of Christ, the unity of Christians into one family of adopted sons and daughters of God, the Father. And, unlike the connotation of holy ones today to refer specifically and only to those who are in heaven, Paul refers to the members of the Church as the saints, the holy ones, and he uses it in every letter except 1Thes and Galatians.

This indicates that all the holy ones are to contemplate this mystery; it is a requisite. It reminds me of the sensus fidei, the infallible sense of the faithful referred to in the Vatican II documents and some of the Papal documents which followed. It is a type of group discernment of Truth, of the absoluteness of the reality under examination.

Finally, it discards as ridiculous it passing hubris that I, in my finitude, with my limited mental capacity, my temporally and spatially confined experience, would think that I could achieve even a modicum of comprehension of this mystery on my own! Absurd!!! It is as if I, standing in my back yard in Vermont and looking up at the sky, had the chutzpah to think that I could not only see the entire universe, some, if not much of the light from which may not even have arrived here yet, but could understand it in all its physical immensity, complexity, infinitude. Ah, the revelries of a fool. Better, with Francis, to stick with Brother Sun and Sister Moon and pray with them to Father God.

what is the breadth and length and height and depth

We come to the centerpiece of our meditation, the puzzlement of the ages. Paul does not specify what we are intended to measure. Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch comment, “Many connect these dimensions with the limitless scope of Christ’s love, which [in the next phrase, Paul notes] surpasses understanding.[3:19] Others see a reference to the untraceable vastness of God and his wisdom (Job 11:7-9) or to the cubic proportions of the heavenly Jerusalem (Rev. 21:16) St. Gregory of Nyssa, in On the Three Days, states: ‘The four dimensions are the four extensions of the Cross. By height is meant heaven, by depth the underworld, by length and breadth the cosmic order in between. In each of these realms, devotion to the Lord is rendered.’”[2] Other scholars agrees that the reference is unclear. One points out other possibilities, the Jerusalem Temple (Ezek 42, 47, 48) or God plan for salvation, but all seem to agree that the more likely is the love of Christ.[3]

While giving a nod to other possibilities, the probability of the love of Christ seems substantiated not only by the immediate subsequent reference in the following phrase, but also in Paul’s iteration of a very similar theme in his Letter to the Romans: For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Rom 8: 38-39] Here he is more specific in his references, but again, all with reference to the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. In Ephesians, we were just to comprehend with all the holy ones; here we are invited to share Paul’s certainty that none of these extremes will be able to separate us from the love of God.  

Having said that, I feel cheated somewhat if I am not able to reflect on these enigmas myself, so, with your indulgence, I will venture where angels and exegetes do not offer clear conclusions.

First, while height and depth certainly bring to mind heaven and hell, length and breadth has been subsumed into popular parlance and attached to measuring “the land.” In a sense, not only is God’s reality found in creation, but creation is tangible evidence of God’s love. Thus, the length and breadth can be seen to measure “the actual world itself, a sacramental universe that is right in front of you and everywhere, as opposed to the ideal, the churchy, or the mental.”[4]

Second, by giving us four dimensions, Paul seems to want us to confront a measurable object, yet both God and God as Love are immeasurable. On the other hand, the cross, as pointed out in the text and footnotes, conveniently has four extensions corresponding to the four measurements. But the cross, in and of itself, is an instrument of torture; it is lovable only by reference to Jesus who hung on it; alone it horrifies and repulses. Thus, we come to something we can all get our arms around, Jesus, our Christ, our Leader, our Shepherd. It is He who is ultimately and intimately lovable, it is He to whom we can all relate, He who made the immeasurable measurable, He whom encapsulates and focuses all the other possibilities of interpretation, even the Temple by which He meant His Body, the True Temple of God, and the Heavenly Jerusalem, His Father’s house, yet as created, which seems likely since it is to hold creations like ourselves, brings us back to Christ since all things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. [Jn 1:3]

Third, Paul gives us another clue on that “measurable object” a few chapters later in Romans, where he exclaims: Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways! [Rom 11:33] In the Ephesians’ quote, he applies depth to the love of Christ; here he applies depth to the riches, wisdom and knowledge of God. Since, in God, all attributes are interrelated and united in the One, we conclude that we are always dealing with Love, here under the aspect of being known in His various judgments and…ways.

Again, depth is often applied to feeling or commitment. We “measure” our attachment to another person by our depth of feeling for that person. The same is true of God: “Every time we make the Sign of the Cross, we are reminded of the depth of love Jesus demonstrated and to which we are called.”[5] Of course, simply stating it is a far cry from truly experiencing God’s love and responding to it. That is the ultimate goal of any life.

Indeed, fourth, even the approach to that goal, in climbing the far flung foothills of God’s Love is to attain a great height. Like a mountain, ascending this peak is arduous, challenging, exhausting, fraught with chasms of sin which seem to lure us to our spiritual death with their false promises, hypnotically mesmerizing us to take just one more step towards our ultimate eternal demise. We must rely on Jesus and the Holy Spirit as our guides to show us the Way to the Father.

It is, if we be honest, the greatest high to which we can aspire and achieve. To know, to experience that I have reached “out and touched the face of God,”[6] that in turn I have been touched by God’s love is the ultimate hope, the ultimate dream of existence. All other pseudo highs are just that, pseudo, imitation, fake, limited, not going anywhere, without substance. They might effect us physically, even alter our mental state, but when we have been grounded in God’s love, nothing compares, nothing can touch that experience which, unlike our induced euphoric states, lasts forever.

[1] Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

[2] Note for Eph 3:18, The New Testament: The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible RSV 2nd Catholic Edt (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2010), 349.

[3] Paul Kobelski, Note on Eph 3:18 width and length… The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Edts. R. Brown, J. Fitzmyer, and R. Murphy (Upper Saddle River, Prentice Hall, 1990), 888. See also: Ephesians 3:18, “The Letters of St. Paul,” The Navarre Bible, Reader’s Edition (New York, Scribners, 2003), 388: “St Paul asks God to give Christians understanding of the ‘mystery of Christ’, which essentially is the outcome of his love. In referring to the vast dimensions of this mystery he uses an enigmatic phrase—‘the breadth and length and height and depth’. These and similar terms were used by Stoic philosophy to designate the cosmos as a whole. Here they express the immense scale of the ‘mystery’ which embraces the entire plan of salvation, the actions of Christ and the activity of the Church. St Augustine interpreted these words as referring to the cross, the instrument of salvation which Christ used to show the full extent of his love (cf. De doctrina Christiana, 2,41). St Paul may indeed be trying to sum up all the richness of the “mystery” of Christ in a graphic way—in terms of a cross whose extremities reach out in all four directions seeking to embrace the whole world. The blood which our Lord shed on the cross brought about the Redemption, the forgiveness of sins (cf. Eph 1:7). It did away with hostility, reconciling all men and assembling them into one body (cf. Eph 2:15-16), the Church. Therefore the cross is an inexhaustible source of grace, the mark of the true Christian, the instrument of salvation for all. When, through the action of Christians, the cross of Christ is made present at all the crossroads of the world, then is that “mystery” implemented whose purpose it is to “unite all things in Christ” (cf. Eph 1:10).

[4] R. Rohr, Daily Meditation, Depth, Breadth, and Process, Sun, Jun 21, 2015

[5] Meditation text, “Being of Service,” 3 Minute Retreat for June 23, 2015, LoyolaPress.com.

[6] John Gillespie Magee, Jr, “High Flight,” Great Aviation Quotes: Quotable Flyer: Pilot and Flying Quotations, http://www.skygod.com/quotes/highflight.html

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