Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. James Michael Dowd, OHC
RCL – Trinity Sunday B – Sunday 07 June 2009
Holy, Holy, Holy Is The Lord!
In the name of the Triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit!
Approximately 740 years before Jesus the Christ was born, a twenty-five year old man had a vision in the Kidron Valley that was so profound, it would change the course of his life forever; and would, approximately 2,740 years later, set the tone for our commemoration of Trinity Sunday, here in the Hudson Valley. That vision would propel the Prophet Isaiah to a forty year ministry of calling the people of Judah and Israel to repentance so that they might, in part, experience what he had experienced in his vision. That vision was, quite simply, an experience of perfect holiness.
Our first reading today, from the Prophet Isaiah, is the account of Isaiah's call to service. It is an extraordinary passage of Scripture that has inspired composers of hymns, like our processional hymn this morning, artists of all types, and liturgists from throughout the ages. But most of all, it has inspired God's people to pursue the Holy by seeking the Holy One itself, and by doing the Holy One's bidding – no matter how difficult the task. And that is one of the reasons that this reading seems so appropriate for Trinity Sunday.
Some of the early Church Fathers, many of whom approached their work from the perspective provided by a life of mystical prayer, believed that this was one of the passages from the Hebrew Scriptures that gave us an indication of the Trinitarian nature of God. The seraphim's call to one another of “holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts” was seen as their way of acknowledging this Trinitarian nature of God. And then, when the Lord finally does speak, he asks Isaiah: “Whom shall I send, who will go for us?” And this, when God refers to himself both in the singular – “whom shall I send”; and in the plural – “who will go for us” is seen by many of the Fathers of the Church as one of the great indications in the Old Testament of this Trinitarian nature of God.
In the eight verses of this reading, there is so much that is taught to us about the nature of God and of God's holiness. But even more is taught to us about our relationship to the Holy One and our call to holiness. Now the subject of holiness is not that popular these days. It scares many people, creeps others out, seems like an awful tasting cough medicine to some, chemotherapy to others. But deep down, I sense in many people a true desire for the Holy. Indeed that is what monks do – we are here to seek the Holy. I think you have joined us this week or weekend to do the same.
At the beginning of the passage, we read: “In the year that King Uzziah died..” and in that phrase alone, we learn a great deal. To begin with, this is a vision that happened in real time. While historians disagree over when it was that King Uzziah died, they all agree that it is somewhere between 742 and 736 B.C. The important thing for us is that this vision takes place at a specific time. And that is important because I think that contemporary humanity – at least in the Western World, often thinks of these visions as nice allegories or wonderful kinds of dreams – but not real. This is the real thing and it is meant to capture our attention.
This very real vision reveals God to be seated on a “high and lofty” throne, wearing a robe with a train so long that it billowed out of the Holy of Holies and into the Temple itself, where Isaiah was praying. Surrounding the Lord were seraphs who continually called out, one to one another, in exaltation of the holiness of God. Proclaiming to one another the glory that fills the entire earth. Indeed, their voices shook the very pivots on the threshold while the Temple of the Lord was engulfed with incense.
Now, we all know that one man's mystical vision is another man's nutty idea about who God is. And one theologians idea about the most Holy Trinity is another man's whacked out idea as to the nature of that Trinity. So, I will spare you my visions and theological ideas. But what I do want to share with you is a reflection on holiness. Because it seems to me that the pursuit of the holy was what Isaiah, and so many women and men, before and since, are all about. I believe that Holiness is what we have been created to live into.
While many people have different ideas as to who and what God is, one common word that would probably be used is “holy” in describing the nature of God. The word “holy” has a common root with the word “whole” – as in complete, united, one. And that is why a Trinitarian nature of God has been seen as so fitting by the Christian community for nearly two millenia. Three is a symbol of community, of wholeness, of completeness.
In our second reading this morning, St. Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, told us that “all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” and that when “we cry 'Abba! Father!' it is that very Spirit bearing witness...that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God...” In other words, you and I, are heirs to God's holiness.
Now I know that I have within me a deep desire for holiness. My spirit is very willing, it's just my flesh that is so very weak. And, I get to talk to a great many people about their faith lives and I don't think that my experience is so very different from many other people's experience. So, if my premise is true – that many or even most people have a deep desire for holiness, then why is it that this holiness is so difficult to live into? Could it be that we have an idea of the Holy that is simply not real? Is our vision of holiness filled with a pious portrait of, say a saint holding a bible in one hand and gazing at a crucifix in another? Or perhaps it is made up of psycho-babble, let's say a talk show host preaching about self-fulfillment and reaching the closure of wholeness?
It seems to me that the reading from the Prophet Isaiah may be of use here. I think there are several examples of how to seek holiness, that is, how to relate to the Holy One, in the passage we read, and I think the first example is given to us by the angels. As you might recall, the seraphim had six wings. Two covered their face, two covered their feet, and with two they were able to fly. And in this symbolism is a lesson for how we might relate to the Holy One. First, in covering the face, the seraphs know that no being can see the face of God and live. That face, in its awesomeness, is just too much for any being to handle. Next are the two wings that covered the feet. The image of feet in the Old Testament is often a euphemism for the sexual organs. And covering up the sexual organs is a sign of humility. Finally, the two wings with which they can fly are a symbol for their readiness to serve God at every moment. And so, awe – wings covering the face; humility – wings covering the feet; and service – wings ready to get to work; are lessons that, it seems to me, we humans are in need of learning over and over again. One way I try to think about that is as follows: Awe is having some understanding of who God is. Humility is having some understanding of who I am. And being ready to serve is having some understanding that I work for God, God doesn't work for me.
And I think Isaiah plays this out in his response to the vision. “I have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” is a pure exclamation of awe. Isaiah is profoundly moved, even to the point of death - “I am lost”, because he has been granted this vision of God. He is also immediately humble: “Woe is me...I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah knows that he is not perfect, that he is a human being with faults – and so, too, he comes from a community of human beings with faults – some quite serious. His instant response in the presence of the awesomeness of God, is to repent.
Then, one of the seraphs fly to him holding a burning coal in tongs so that he can touch the coal to Isaiah's lips thus cleansing him from his sin. Once free of sin, the Lord addresses Isaiah and asks “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah's immediate response is: “Here I am, send me!” Or, put another way: “I've got wings and I'm ready to fly.”
And so, in reflecting on the mystery of the Trinity and these readings, something about the nature of that Trinity became just a little more clear for me: Awe, of course, is what we have traditionally attribute to God, the Father. God's greatness is so vast that it is simply to much for us to behold. In God's humility, he sent his Son – who became obedient to death, even death on a cross. So that we could have wings to fly into service, propelled by a mighty wind that serves where it chooses, as we are all born of the Spirit.
My sisters and brothers, in the year that President Obama was inaugurated, we too can have a vision, we too can see the Lord: We can experience a vision of the Lord in awe, because we have gathered together in his name and we know that just by doing so, our God is present among us. In a few minutes, we can experience a vision of the Lord in humility, as we gather around the altar and enter into the Eucharistic sacrifice of Jesus the Christ. And at the end of this Mass, we can experience a vision of the Lord in service, as we are sent forth in the Spirit, to co-create with God in the building of our inheritance, God's Kingdom. This Kingdom is our inheritance. It is our whole future. All this, so that, along with St. Paul, we may “be glorified in him.” In other words, so that we may live into holiness. After all, we are heirs, so what is God's is ours. For as St. John says “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. And that's quite an inheritance.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.