Isaiah received his call from God about 740 years before the birth of Jesus. What we hear today is not his first calling, but the beginning of a new phase of his prophetic ministry. It’s extraordinary to hear this event described: he had what is called a theophany—a vision of heaven. The angels uttered those words we say or sing at every Mass: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts! All the earth is filled with his glory!” But given that those words of the angels, from that heavenly setting are the same words we use here at Mass, we should understand that as we sing those words, that we are actually entering that angelic court seen by Isaiah, in which our God Most High, is surrounded by adoring angels. Those two realities become one in that moment.
Coming to grasp God’s holiness, Isaiah began to fear, believing that seeing this God so holy, it would end his life, because he knew he was a not always a man pure of heart. But God wished to make him holy. So an angel brought a burning coal from the incense and touched it to Isaiah’s lips, not for the purpose of inflicting pain, but instead to render him pure.
As an aside, there’s a short, silent prayer that the priest makes as he bows before the altar, on his way to the ambo, to proclaim the Gospel. He says,
“Cleanse my heart and my lips, almighty God, that I may worthily proclaim your holy Gospel.”
In the old Roman Missal, before the changes in the Mass that followed the Second Vatican Council, the wording to this prayer made an explicit connection to Isaiah’s experience:
“Cleanse my heart and my lips, O God almighty, Who didst cleanse the lips of the Prophet Isaias with a burning coal; and vouchsafe through Thy gracious mercy, so to purify me that I may worthily proclaim Thy holy Gospel.”
I know it gets lost on us—myself included—but all these references to the experience of the heavenly court are not arbitrarily referenced in this experience that we call the Mass. Because the liturgy is designed to take our senses heavenward. In all the ways we can make it so much about us—whether it’s the hymns we sing or just our state of mind—it falls short of what it’s supposed to do for us. While we are God’s beloved, our worship shouldn’t be primarily about us or trying to make God like us.
As you’ve heard me say, for all the good things that came with the changes in the liturgy after the Second Vatican Council, the danger in it is that it perhaps brought a tendency to make it more about affirming ourselves, rather than impelling us to transcend beyond ourselves.
But what risked being lost was a way of worship that more clearly moved us into the mystery—the mystery that Isaiah experienced in his heavenly vision.
I remind us of how our altar was anointed with the Sacred Chrism on the occasion of its dedication (December 20, 2014), and how the oil remained on its top over the course of months, slowly being absorbed into the granite. It calls to mind the story of Jacob from the Hebrew Scriptures (Genesis 28). He was making a long trip alone and stopped to rest for the night, using a stone for a pillow. That night he had a dream, a vision. In his dream, he saw a stairway or ladder of some sort, connecting heaven and earth. Going up and down the stairway were angels, God’s messengers. God then spoke to Jacob and re-affirmed his familial and covenantal relationship with him.
The next morning when he awoke, Jacob realized that it was more than just a dream, he had really encountered God. He declared, this place is “the house of God, the gateway to heaven”. Which, by the way, are the exact words, boldly proclaimed in the mosaic on the floor, just inside our Cathedral’s great doors: Domus Dei Porta Coeli. Jacob took the stone that he had slept on, anointed it with oil and made it an altar of sorts. Our altar is that stairway, connecting this space with the heavenly court and this building is indeed a house of God, the gateway to heaven.
Furthermore, the bread and wine brought forward and placed on this altar—this gateway to heaven—don’t remain in that state. After we join our voices with the seraphim, singing “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts”, we’ll pray the First Eucharistic Prayer, the Roman Canon, which asks our Lord:
“In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God, command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy Angel to your altar on high in the sight of your divine majesty, so that all of us, who through this participation at the altar receive the most holy Body and Blood of your Son, may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing”.
Brothers and sisters, what we are in midst of right now is not just a church service. It is a heavenly mystery, active and alive, in the midst of which we are given heavenly food to nourish our souls. Let us look beyond just the here and now and see more than just each other. We are in the midst of angels and saints, God’s heavenly court. Let us desire to enter into that mystery, to discover God of Jacob, the God of Isaiah, our God.