February 10, 2013

The Heavenly Liturgy and the Earthly Mission

After the death of a leper king who brought great financial and technological security to Jerusalem, Isaiah receives a vision while he is worshipping in the temple.  Attitudes toward the successful but unclean king must have been mixed.  Just as political powers are inclined to do in our times, Uzziah in fact had attempted to abuse the sacred right to right worship enjoyed by the People of God inorder to expand his own political power over the lives of his subjects.  Whatever his original intentions were when he first approached God, the absolute sovereign splendor the future prophet saw over and against the passing of worldly power would help prepare for the most definitive moment of human history.

It was a vision of great and powerful spiritual creatures ministering before the overwhelming majesty of God enthroned and clothed in overflowing glory.   The awe inspiring celestial hymn he heard echoing in the temple around this scene celebrates the great truth King Uzziah himself had forgotten in his service to Judah.   Namely, true security and the most important kind of prosperity are not principally the fruit of political cleverness or skillful ingenuity.   The real source of these blessings is God Himself to whom alone right worship is owed, and though this divine rule is hidden from the proud, those who glimpse this glory are purified and sent to declare what they see.

There are countless kinds of angels of which seraphim constitute a certain rank.  The wings of an angel signify its power and the six wings of a seraph denote the greatest of all created powers.  Whatever else they are (and very little is known about them), Isaiah presents us with wonder filled, reverent, powerful and jubilant creatures who never break their ready vigilance in service to the Lord.  They are powerful and wise enough to adore the holiness of God as more holy than any holiness that can be understood.  The triple sanctus they raise in their communion of endless praise is superlative for the greatest awe and wonder.   It is a awe and wonder caught up in unimaginable love.

At the same time, they are ready and able to remedy sinful man's complaint of unworthiness.  They do not hesitate to fly to man to heal and encourage him.  They do this not by sheltering the sinful from the piercing truth that must be faced, but instead with great power they render humble humanity vulnerable to the saving Presence whom they attend.  Employing Love's sacred fire as if our frail lips were a kind of incense, Isaiah saw for Himself how they help us open our mouths so that we too might declare the Lord's praise with them before the world.

Just as in the shadow of heavenly worship Isaiah tasted the mercy of God, God's mercy baptized Peter in the shadow of Christ.  Peter did not see a celestial vision, but on the contrary he saw the Word made flesh.  He did not witness the power of mighty creatures and the overflowing raiment veiling God's glory enthroned, but instead Peter stood vulnerable and afraid before the Image of the Invisible God.  The voice that gave Peter courage was not that of seraphim, but rather he found heart only in the human speech of God Himself, "Do not be afraid."   

The courage Peter found by the shore of a lake, the whole Church finds before the table of the Lord.   At every Mass, we Christians are meant to stand together in bold vulnerability before the power of God revealed in Christ.  We stand has did Isaiah, Peter and Paul before us.  As hard as the truth of God's love is to accept and live with, we take heart because Christ commands us to.

Just before the Eucharistic prayer, the whole assembly joins the hymn of the Seraphim that once enchanted Isaiah.  We have been made able to do this not only through that hidden ministry angels, but by that of Christ Himself whose perfect offering purifies our lips.  We do not hope merely for that tiny glimpse into the shadows of divine majesty Isaiah once beheld.   Instead, we boldly dare to approach the very altar of God and partake of His mystical banquet with the hope that we might one day see Him as He is.  We even believe Christ is at work in us at this very moment so that we will be made like Him.  If before this saving mystery, Peter should complain about his unworthiness, we should not be discouraged if we must suffer displeasure over the lack of love God's holiness reveals in us.  God waits for us with eager longing to offer Him our misery just as Peter learned to do.   

Yet it is perilous if out of cowardice we deny our confession of the Son of God or remain silent about this great mercy.  The world needs the Gospel of Christ today just as much as Judah needed a word of hope in the difficult times into which Isaiah was sent.  If Isaiah, who did not fully know the pledge of future glory we now enjoy, did not fear to announce the tidings of God to a people lost in darkness, we who have shared in the cup of salvation must always be ready to give a reason for the hope we have inside.