5th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Preached February 10, 2019; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
In today’s 1st reading we meet with one of the great theophanies or visions of God recorded in the Old Testament. The theophany takes places in Jerusalem, at the temple, the dwelling place of God, but if we pay close attention God himself appears seated on a throne somewhere high above the temple.
Now in the Old Testament only the priests entered the temple building itself, while the worshippers would gather in the courtyard outside the temple. So we could imagine Isaiah standing and praying in the courtyard and looking towards the temple building when he has his vision.
The “Shekinah” or divine presence that fills the temple now appears as nothing more than the train of God’s garment, so to speak. God himself appears enthroned not on the mercy seat in the holy of holies, but high above the temple. Indeed, God himself does not appear directly; he is certainly not described. Instead there are the seraphim, the burning ones (that is what the word means), the highest of angelic beings, on fire with the love of God; they are also pictured above the temple and surrounding God’s throne. Today’s reading omits a certain detail: the seraphim are pictured with six wings, with two they cover their eyes, with two they cover their feet, and with two they hover aloft.
Here we are given an image that represents an invisible spiritual reality. The wings serve as veils. Even though the angels are said to behold the face of God, the brightness of his face surpasses the capacity of their minds to know him; hence the veil over their eyes. As for the veil over their feet, the lowest part of the body, this speaks of the unworthiness of created nature in the presence of God. Finally, with two wings they hover aloft; they must continually direct their effort above themselves, towards God. Then the cry out continually, Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God of hosts! All the earth is full of his glory.
Isaiah, we could say, saw the Lord, not in himself, but as infinitely surpassing the whole created world: surpassing the temple as the place of his presence and surpassing the highest of angelic creatures; surpassing all things visible and invisible. This is what is meant by the expression ‘divine transcendence’. The word ‘holy’ refers especially to the transcendent perfection of God. He is not just “holy”, but three times “holy”, the triple repetition of the word hints at the holiness of the Most Holy Trinity, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Holiness, in the first place refers, to the surpassing excellence of God, the creator of all. Yet, here is something remarkable, God commands his people: Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy. (Lev 19:2) Likewise Jesus says, Be perfect as you heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt 5:48)
The vision of Isaiah lifts our gaze, like the interior of a baroque church, to dizzying heights to give us some glimpse of the majesty and holiness of God, but then we find that we are called, in some way, to ascend those very heights, to share in some mysterious way in the holiness of God, to be clothed with the radiance of his glory. God, in his mercy, would lift us up to these heights.
If, however, our gaze turns back upon ourselves, we will have to say with Isaiah, Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among people of unclean lips.
How we sin with our tongue! Or with the extensions of our tongue (like texts, emails, Facebook posts, and twitters)! How easily words of frustration, anger, or judgment escape our lips. How easily we resort to foul language and crude, crass, or obscene jokes. How easily we tell lies or tear other people down with our words or make snarky comments. How easily we exaggerate or boast or embellish the truth to make ourselves look better. How easily we are selective with our ‘facts’ in order to make someone else look worse. How easily we give way to gossip and idle chatter. Well did Jesus say, I tell you, on the day of judgment people will render an account for every careless word they speak. (Mt 12:36)
If the light of God’s holiness lays bare the uncleanness of our lips, our unclean lips point to an unclean mind.
When we realize that this uncleanness is getting ready to come out we need, once again, to stop, to keep silence, to think, to pray; we need to learn to redirect our thoughts to what is holy, good, and true. It will help if we also stop filling our minds and imaginations with trash.
If we now turn to the Gospel, Simon Peter starts off speaking boldly. He is the weather-hardened fisherman who, with a smirk on his face perhaps, thinks he is humoring a rabbi who knows nothing of the sea: Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets. Like Isaiah, like all of us, he is a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips.
Then suddenly there are fish in abundance, where the fisherman knows there should not be any fish. Then Peter realizes that he is not just in the presence of one more rabbi, but he is in the presence of the holiness of God. The seraphim that surrounded the throne of God in the vision of Isaiah surround the man Jesus in the boat with Peter. Like Isaiah his first instinct is to recognize his own unworthiness, Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.
Then Jesus says, Do not be afraid. God’s holiness would not destroy us, but purify and transform us. In his mercy, God would make Peter, and all of us, to share in his holiness.
Now I have dwelt at length upon God’s transcendent holiness and the instinctive human reaction when brought into his presence because today we so readily take God for granted. We are used to the words do not be afraid, but we are accustomed to think and act already as if, when it comes to our relation to God, there were no cause for fear. We bring the spirit of entitlement with us into the presence of God.
Part of the uncleanness of our mind – and therefore the uncleanness of our lips – is the casualness with which we approach God, considering him our good buddy. We have come to believe in the merciful God who is incapable of condemning anyone or anything; we have come to believe in the merciful God who no longer sits in judgment on anyone. We have come to believe in God, our good buddy, who will give us encouragement and consolation, help us out of our troubles, but never, ever, rebuke us for our way of life.
Maybe this distorted view of God’s mercy helps explain why some bishops have failed to protect the faith of the people, the innocence of children, and the sacredness of the liturgy. We have not been taught to recognize the thrice holy God enthroned above the seraphim, nor even the God made man that Simon Peter met sitting in his boat on the sea of Galilee.
Jesus says, Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; but whoever humbles himself shall be exalted. (Mt 23:12; Lk 14:11; 18:14) We are familiar with the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee approaches God like we are accustomed to today, on equal standing and with a proud mind. The tax collector stands afar, beats his breast, and says, O God, be merciful to me a sinner. It is not a matter of an outward routine, but an inward disposition of mind.
St. Teresa of Avila, who experienced the intimacy of God’s love as few others have, and who lived in a time when her native Spain was ruled by mighty kings, was accustomed to refer to Jesus as “His majesty”.
We are called to holiness and we are called to friendship with God, but first we must learn the way of humility. The holiness of God should lead us to a deep inner silence in which he is able to enter and purify our unclean minds. That is when we will truly be able to hear Jesus reassuring us with his words, Do not be afraid.
The liturgy of the Mass teaches us – or should teach us – this way of humility.
When we hear the reading from the prophet Isaiah and the praise of the seraphim, our minds should immediately go to the Holy, Holy, Holy of the Mass in which we join our voices with those of the angelic choirs, adding “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”. We are preparing for the coming of the one whom St. Peter recognized in his boat on the Sea of Galilee; he is one and the same with the majestic Lord praised by the seraphim. The association should lead us to bow down before the majesty of the Lord, after the example of Isaiah and Peter. The Holy, Holy, Holy should bring us to our knees in a spirit of awe and adoration as we enter into the eucharistic prayer and seek to unite ourselves to the divine sacrifice.
For the priest it is a dangerous thing that requires the strength of his ordination to be able to stand before the altar of the Lord.
Then right before we receive communion we kneel again as we say, Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed. Considering the seraph who flew to Isaiah with the burning coal from the altar, touched the lips of the prophet and so purified him, we can ask the Lord to send his angel to purify the uncleanness of our lips and minds, so that can worthily receive our Lord in holy communion. Then, when he finds a truly humble heart, Jesus comes to us in his mercy and lifts us up to share in the supernatural heights of his own holiness.
The holiness of God, thrice holy, enthroned above the seraphim is revealed in the man Jesus Christ, the Son of God; it is revealed in the holy sacrifice of the Mass and in holy communion; the holiness of God also abides in our churches, in the tabernacle, as in a true Temple. The tabernacle is the earthly throne of God; the earthly throne of Christ the King.
Whenever we enter this building we need to recognize and be conscious of the holiness of God. We need to bow down before the holiness of God. That is why we genuflect; that is why we kneel; that is why the Temple of God should be a place of silence and prayer, not a place of noise and chatter.