Psalm 92:1ab, 1c–2, 5 (R. 1a)
July 9, 2016
The Holy is dreadful and fascinating; it attracts us and, at the same time, makes us want to flee. Human beings are magnetized by the unbearable and terrible holiness of God. Christians discover the holiness of God in the sacred Humanity of Jesus Christ, for «God», says Saint Paul, «who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God, in the face of Christ Jesus» (2 Corinthians 4:6).
Today, Isaiah recounts the breathtaking revelation that marks his consecration as a prophet. Isaiah’s soul is flooded with awareness of the Thrice-Holy God filling and transcending all things, the God upon whom the seraphim themselves dare not gaze.
Isaiah’s vocation and consecration unfold in a liturgical setting. Isaiah is in the temple, standing just outside the Holy of Holies. He beholds the Lord high and lifted up; the train of his glory fills the temple. Seraphim six–winged and many–eyed hover aloft on their wings singing the ageless hymn: “Holy! Holy! Holy!” The temple is shaken to its very foundations. Smoke from the altar of incense fills the temple, mingling with the cloud of the glory of the presence of God.
The responsorial psalm describes a similar experience. «The Lord hath reigned, he is clothed with beauty» (Psalm 92:1). Again it happens in a liturgical setting. The psalmist is in the temple; like Isaiah, he is aware of the breathtaking majesty of God. Like Isaiah, he is overwhelmed by the need to be holy in the presence of the Holy. «Holy is thy house, and must needs be holy until the end of time» (Psalm 92:5).
Souls in every age have experienced something akin to Isaiah’s terror and awe in the presence of God. Recently I came upon a 15th century English Carthusian’s account of what happened to him. His name was Dom Richard Methley and he wrote this at the Charterhouse of Mount Grace in 1487:
On the feast of St. Peter in Chains I was in the church at Mount Grace, and after celebrating Mass was engaged upon thanksgiving in prayer and meditation, when God visited me in power, and I yearned with love so as almost to give up the ghost. How this could be I will tell you, my brethren, as best I can by the grace of God. Love and longing for the Beloved raised me in spirit into heaven, so that save for this mortal life nothing (so far as I know) would have been lacking to me of the glory of God Who sitteth upon the throne.
Note the similarity with Isaiah’s account: “The glory of God Who sitteth upon the throne.” Our Carthusian goes on to say:
Then did I forget all pain and fear and deliberate thought of anything, and even of the Creator. Men who fear the peril of fire do not cry, “Fire hath come upon my house; come and help me” since in their strait and agony they can scarcely speak a single word, but cry, «Fire! Fire! Fire!» Or if their fear be greater they cry «Ah! Ah! Ah!» wishing to impart their peril in this single cry so I, in my poor way. . . . As the pain of love grew more powerful I could scarce have thought at all, forming within my spirit these words: «Love! Love! Love!» And at last, ceasing from this, I deemed that I would wholly yield up my soul, singing rather than crying, in spirit through joy, «Ah! Ah! Ah!»
The experience of the Holy either leaves one wordless or causes one to sing, «Holy! Holy! Holy!» Revealing one’s uncleanness in the presence of the Infinite Purity of God, it provokes a crisis of abjection, a crisis designed by God to throw us, not into utter despair, but into the most reckless and daring of hopes.
God himself descends into the crisis. To Isaiah he sent one of the seraphim, «having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar» (Isaiah 6:6). The seraph touched the prophet’s mouth, saying, «Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin is forgiven» (Isaiah 6:7).
So powerfully evocative is this text, with its Eucharistic resonances, that the Churches of both East and West have enshrined it in their liturgies. In the traditional Roman Missal the priest prays before the gospel:
Cleanse the heart and lips of me, God almighty, as once thou didst cleanse the lips of the prophet Isaias with a burning coal. So clean a thing let thy loving mercy make of me, that I bring no shame on thy holy gospel by preaching it.
In the Byzantine liturgy, the priest, after giving the deacon to drink of the Holy Chalice, addresses him saying, «Behold, this has touched thy lips and shall remove thy wickedness, and purge thy sin».
The experience of the Holy is given not to annihilate, nor to cast down, nor to condemn, nor to destroy, but to call to life, to purify, and to raise up. Isaiah bears witness to this today. Purified by the burning coal taken from the altar, he responds to the voice of the Lord. «And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‹Whom shall I send and who will go for us?› Then I said, ‹Here am I! Send me›» (Isaiah 6:8).
The experience of Isaiah, and even of our English Carthusian, is not essentially different from our experience in the the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass today. What is the sacred liturgy but our encounter with the Holy? Today, here and now, our human frailty encounters the Glory of the Lord; our sin is unmasked by the All-Holy. Today, here and now, the transforming grace of the risen Christ, a power at once terrible and tender, shakes our foundations, and fills this holy place with holiness. Today, here and now, thousands of angels and tens of thousands of archangels, the cherubim and seraphim hover over our heads singing, «Holy, holy, holy».
Today, in this Holy Sacrifice, the holiness of God descends to us in Christ and in the power of the Holy Ghost. Our lips and our hearts will be purified, not by a burning coal administered by a seraph, but by the incandescent Body and fiery Blood of Christ administered by his unworthy servant. Christ the King comes, robed in beauty, escorted invisibly by angelic hosts, not to cast us down but to raise us with him, by the power of the Holy Ghost, even to the Father.
The holiness that comes from above in every Holy Sacrifice of the Mass shatters the fetters of fear, even as it fills us with awe. It has about it nothing narrow, nothing constraining, nothing measured. It is prophetic and apostolic. It is wide and all–embracing, joyful and utterly free. Out of the liturgic experience of the Holy, men and women of unclean lips emerge as heralds of God and bearers of his Word; sinners emerge clothed in grace. Listen! Holiness will speak, saying: «Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven» (Isaiah 6:7).