Tag Archives: Isaiah

Holy, Holy, Holy

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.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Binding Up the Brokenhearted

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
           because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
          to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
          and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,
          and the day of vengeance of our God;
          to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
          to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
          the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.  Is. 61: 1-3.

In many respects, this passage from the book of Isaiah provides the perfect Advent reflection.  It gathers up many of the emotions of the people of Israel after the Babylonian exile.   King Nebuchadnezzar and his army had destroyed the Temple, the place where God and man intersected.  Many had been sold into bondage; families were scattered and broken.  The Jews had been humiliated and these were “the worst hard times”.    And Isaiah rose to tell them God remained with them, somehow, in all this mess.

Isaiah refers back to the book of Leviticus, to proclaim the year of jubilee.  (In the year of jubilee, which occurred every fifty years, the prisoners were released, and all debts were forgiven. )  We see this theme running throughout Scripture (both the Old and New Testaments):  God comes to shower his blessings on those whose spirits have been crushed and whose hearts have been broken.  God’s focus doesn’t rest on the superpowers, the wealthy, the priests or the religious elite.  Isaiah thus proclaimed that God was at work; the days of sorrow were over and the days of joy had begun.

 This passage from Isaiah should sound very familiar to Christian readers.  This is the exact passage Jesus reads from in the synagogue when he returns to his hometown, Nazareth.  When Jesus read from this scroll, he announced:  “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Luke 4:20.  I think this reveals two important messages.  First, it tells us a good deal about Jesus’ understanding of his mission.  He came to bind up the brokenhearted, to release the prisoners and set the captives free, and to bring sight to the blind.

 If we take the Incarnation seriously and believe that we really are the body of Christ the second message of this Scripture becomes clear:  if we follow Jesus, this is our mission as well.  Because of the Incarnation, our task is clear:  we are to tend to the brokenhearted, the blind, those who mourn, and those who are enslaved.  Sometimes, those conditions may be literal, and sometimes they may be spiritual.  Either way, that’s the purpose and the proper function of the Body of Christ.

Thus, Advent announces something deeply joyous, a joy that reaches far beyond our understanding.  As Rabbi Heschel once wrote:

There is not enough grandeur in our souls
To be able to unravel in words
The knot of time and eternity.
One should like to sing for all men,
For all generations…
There is a song in the wind
And joy in the trees.

Our joy approaches, and the whole earth quickens as the Word nears.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

 © 2011 James R. Dennis