In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
- “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” Isaiah 6:1-8.
In today’s reading from the Lectionary, Isaiah describes the vision in which he received the call to his vocation as a prophet. He locates this mystical moment at a very specific time, “the year that King Uzziah died.” King Uzziah had enjoyed a long reign (783-742 B.C.), during which Judah achieved the summit of its power. The economic, agricultural, and military resources of the country increased substantially during his rule. Like a Greek tragedy, however, Uzziah’s strength emerged as his great weakness. He usurped the power of the priesthood, ultimately leading to an outbreak of leprosy on his forehead which precluded him from entering the Temple. II Chron 26:18-21.
The death of the King, especially under such metaphorical circumstances, placed the kingdom in a time of mourning and uncertainty. It was a time, as Shakespeare observed, to “sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings”. Richard II. Upon entering the Temple during this troubling moment, Isaiah receives a mystical vision of God which sets the fledgling prophet on a unique path. (It’s worth reminding ourselves that the prophets’ primary function was not foretelling the future. They acted as the voice of the Lord, most often in the role of social critics.)
Isaiah has the remarkable experience of actually seeing the Lord (“Adonai”) in this vision. Surrounding Adonai are seraphs who cry to each other, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory.” The threefold repetition of the Lord’s holiness should resonate with us particularly on Trinity Sunday.
Like a number of Christian mystics, Isaiah’s initial response to this intense and personal encounter with the Almighty is one of profound humility, even inadequacy. He says: “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips….” Overcome with a feeling of acute inadequacy, Isaiah expresses profound awe at this vision.
Rather than offering a word of consolation, one of the seraphs touches his lips with a burning coal, burning away his sin and freeing him to speak God’s word. As a priest explained to me when I was a young boy, within this passage the seer is seared. I think for many of us this rings true: our vocation does not always arise from a remarkably joyous event, nor does it occur without some pain. And yet, somehow this burning moment will both heal and enable Isaiah to become God’s voice. Having been thus cleansed and healed, Isaiah can now hear God’s call and answer “Here I am; send me!” In a very rich sense, that vision will provide the touchstone upon which the balance of Isaiah’s life and ministry will depend.
Too often, our world seems to have devolved into a pathology of the ordinary, where nothing is sacred. For so many people, their experience of life and creation strikes them as commonplace, as profoundly ordinary. This passage offers us a glimpse of something completely different. Isaiah suggests a vision of creation brimming over with the divine, “full of his glory.”
For many of us in liturgical churches, the cry of the seraphs (“Holy, holy, holy”, known as the sanctus) now serves as a part of our weekly worship. When we hear that wonderful hymn, I wonder if we also hear a call to our own vocation. I wonder if we can hear the Lord asking, “Whom shall I send?” and whether we will answer that question. Isaiah’s encounter with the Living God changed him forever. I pray that ours will, too.
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2012 James R. Dennis