Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Isaiah 6:1-2a, 3-8
Most things skitter along the surface of our life, without ever really penetrating the surface. We might read the news or watch a silly video or pick something up at the story, but these kinds of everyday experiences rarely make a difference. We don’t even think about them, but just let them be included in the overall background of our vision of life. On the other hand, those moments of exceptional clarity are the ones that shape us. Every once in a while, we experience a serious, life-altering moment of change, a moment that rocks us to our core and alters everything. Fortunately, more of these moments are clustered early on in life—where I will go to school, what career-path I will choose, who I will marry—but they can happen later on too: a serious accident, the onset of an illness, the loss of a friend. These crucial turning points in our lives cannot be ignored, but clamor for attention, reflection, and an adjustment in the way we go about our lives.
In this Sunday’s reading from Isaiah, the prophet himself undergoes one of these life-altering moments of change that blows our experiences out of the water. In a vision, he walks into the throne room of the living God! First, he describes what he sees: God himself is seated on his throne, up some steps from the floor and his garment is so voluminous that it fills the whole temple. To me, this brings up some fascinating connections. In Hebrew, the word for temple (heykal) can also mean palace. While many times, we have to consider whether the author is referring to a king’s palace or god’s temple, here the word is both. God is reigning in the throne room of his palace/temple: the Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies contained the Ark of the Covenant, the top of which was referred to as the “mercy seat,” because that is where God’s presence would come and “sit” as if on a throne (see Exod 25:17-22). The Holy of Holies was designed to be God’s throne room, the place of his presence.
The Real Temple
Yet Isaiah is not walking into the mere earthly temple, which is only a “copy and shadow” (Heb 9:5) of the heavenly sanctuary. The real temple is in heaven. The earthly temple merely imitates it. Though only the high priest is able to enter the Holy of Holies, and he only once per year, Isaiah is invited by God into the sanctuary in heaven, into the heart of his presence. While we might think of this invitation as a great opportunity, Isaiah is terrified. He has the right response to God’s presence: fear. But why is he afraid? He is afraid because of his own sin. He immediately declares, “Woe is me! For I am lost” (Isa 6:5 RSV). He fears for his life for God himself had promised, “for man shall not see me and live” (Exod 33:20 RSV). It is not that God is like Medusa, turning anyone who looks at him into stone, but that our capacity as human beings is limited. If we were to see God, it would overload our circuits and we’d blow a fuse. We couldn’t handle it. It would be the end of us. Isaiah knows this and is filled with fear.
Burning Away Sin
But he has not been invited into God’s presence by mistake. The Lord brought him for a specific calling. Before Isaiah can be commissioned, however, he needs to be purified. When Isaiah protests that he is sinful and despairs of his life, God does not dismiss his self-accusations of sinfulness, but instead provides a remedy. One of the six-winged seraphs worshipping the Lord, comes to Isaiah with a burning coal from the altar of incense in the throne room (as there was an altar of incense in the Temple) and touches it to Isaiah’s lips to purify him. God does not ignore our sin, he cleanses us from it. In fact, this powerful cleansing of the burning coal prompted many early Christian interpreters to see the coal of the altar as a figure for the Eucharist. Just as Isaiah is purified by the burning coal, we are purified each time we receive Communion. To this day, the Church teaches that receiving the Eucharist remits venial sins. It heals us from the daily impurities of our minor failings and disposes us to receive more and more of God’s grace.
Responding to God’s Call
Finally, God calls out to Isaiah with a challenge: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” (Isa 6:8 RSV). God has a message for his people and he needs a messenger. With bravery instilled in him by his purification, Isaiah responds enthusiastically: “Here am I! Send me.” At this point, we see how to respond to God in that handful of life-changing moments we will have. When God comes calling, we should not let our hands droop and reel backward in fear at our own failings, weaknesses, and deficiencies. God does not call people who are ready for the work, he makes us ready through calling us. Isaiah was unclean, but God cleansed him. We are sinful and yet he washes away our sins. It is tempting to shrink back from God’s call because we know ourselves, yet God wants us to look at him in faith and embrace his call with the zest of Isaiah. It takes a little courage, a bit of bravery, a pinch of panache to say to God “Send me!” Yet faith changes us from fearful to audacious.