Tag Archives: Mysticism

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

Looking For the Kingdom

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’  Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’  And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’  Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’  Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’  Matt. 25: 34-46.

By now, we Christians should be accustomed to the notion of an invisible reality.  We believe in an unseen God at work in the world, that simple bread and wine are transformed every week into the body and blood of Jesus, and that the Church operates as the mystical body of Christ today.  So, the reading from today’s Lectionary shouldn’t surprise us:  Christ tells us that somehow our works of charity reveal and reflect His presence in the world.

Charity doesn’t mean simply rich people writing checks to poor people, and it’s quite different from what we think of as philanthropy.  It’s Latin root is caritas, meaning loving-kindness.  In Greek the word is agape, and in Hebrew, the word is chesed.  The ancient Christian virtue of charity both glorifies and reflect’s God’s love.  In no small measure, charity is less about what we do and more about who we are.

Let’s return to the notion of this invisible reality about which Jesus is teaching us.  He tells us that our charity (our ability to love our ability to see his love and be his love) to those on the margins of society actually reveals our love for Him.  This is the tricky part:  “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  Jesus tells us that through the mystery of the  incarnation, every one of us can still encounter the Living Christ.  Our compassion for the hungry, the stranger,  the sick and the prisoners will allow us to find Jesus.  If we take Scripture seriously, we are all compelled to accept this mystical reality.

This entire discussion takes place within the context of Jesus telling us that our ability to love without flinching provides the standard by which the sheep and the goats will be separated.  Our salvation depends on our charity.  Jesus offers all this as an explanation of what the Kingdom is like. 

I don’t think Jesus is simply talking about heaven, or about some distant time when we’ll find out what it’s like to see the face of God.  Remember, Jesus also told us, “the kingdom of God is among you now.”  Luke 17:21. 

I know:  the world today doesn’t look much like the Kingdom.  That sick lady in the hospital, that homeless smelly old man, and that tattooed gang member in the County Jail:  they just don’t seem to have much in common with the Son of God.  But I believe in the invisible reality that Jesus told us we couldn’t yet see.  And I believe that our charity will  form our souls and will reveal the kingdom among us.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2011 James R. Dennis