Today’s readings tell of extraordinary things. They tell of unexpected lightning, the lightning that struck Isaiah (1st reading), struck Peter, James and John (the Gospel) and, after the Resurrection, struck all the Twelve, another James, and the apostle Paul (2nd reading).
Isaiah sees the Lord seated on a high throne, proclaimed by the seraphim, while the foundations shake, the temple is filled with smoke, and he is made a prophet. Peter and his companions, and James and John, are overwhelmed by their catch of fish, and leave all to follow the Lord. Paul recalls the apparitions of the risen Christ and his own unexpected birth as an apostle.
What’s really happening is the irruption of the divine into the world of the human; the disclosure of God. Here is impact: advent, epiphany, visitation. Words that have become a little tame, perhaps. But the thing isn’t tame. When this happens, it isn’t just the foundations of a building which shake. It’s the whole humanity of those it touches. God passes, and what’s left in his wake? Cauterized lips, torn nets, strong men collapsed in the bottom of a boat, eyes blinded, untimely birth. This is a God who comes unexpectedly, and when he comes doesn’t leave us as we were. He leaves us in disarray, dislocated, dismembered. The living God is too much for fallen man. When the seraph flies from heaven with a burning coal in his hand, when the heat and light and holiness of God fall on us, what can we say? ‘Woe is me!’, ‘Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man.’ Divine truth is meeting our nonsense, goodness our selfishness, beauty our ugliness: how can the vessel not shatter?
If this weren’t softened for us most of the time, where would we be? If the risen One was not beyond our sight, and if the burning coal weren’t hidden under appearances of bread and wine, how could we survive? If it weren’t for ‘Fear not’, how could we get up again?
But think what came out of the fire! An Isaiah, a Peter and a Paul.
‘This man is a chosen vessel of mine to carry my name’, the Lord says of Paul (Acts 9:15), to take it to the whole world, still to this day, his preaching alive in the Church of the living God.
‘I am lost’, cries Isaiah. In fact, he says, ‘I am silenced’. And ‘the prophet, St Jerome says, mourned’ for this silence. He ‘mourned because he was not worthy to praise the Lord of hosts with the seraphim…he did not dare to praise the Lord because he had unclean lips’ and ‘praise is not seemly in the mouth of a sinner’ (Sir 15:9). But these unclean lips were touched and purged, and Isaiah could join the cosmic praise of the angelic world: Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus. So, in time his lips told his followers of the heavenly praise he had heard, and now every Eucharist, Eastern and Western, sings the song of the Seraphim, and earth is joined to heaven.
The disciples’ broken nets were really their hearts, broken open for a bigger catch. ‘From now on it is men you will catch.’ A limitless love. And this love breaks out again in saint after saint, and work after work of mercy, and human fish are drawn into the net of salvation.
Yes, think what came out of this fire.
Brothers and sisters, we need to go into it. This is the meaning of the Year of Mercy. Christ himself went of his own free will into the fire of his passion, and emerged the Risen One. What was immediate for the prophets and apostles will normally, mercifully, be mediated, tempered for us. But the fire is still burning. Our duties, our disappointments, our joys, hopes, difficulties, illnesses, the people we’re given to love, the people we can’t stand or can’t stand us, the tedium of things, life’s whole package: the fire of God is hidden there. It’s there in prayer and God’s word and the sacraments. It’s there in the terrible form of persecution for our fellow-Christians, and other religious minorities, in Syria and Iraq. Let’s go into it too in the form it takes for us. Christ has said, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ It is, in the end, divine love. If we say ‘no’ to it, it’s judgment; if we say ‘yes’, it’s mercy. If we say ‘yes, we will be able to say at the end what Paul said, ‘By the grace of God I am what I am.’ But we cannot avoid it.
‘The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre –
To be redeemed from fire by fire’ (T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding)
The seraph with the burning coal, says Origen, is Christ. And ‘there is not just one advent of my Lord Jesus Christ in which he came down to earth; he also came to Isaiah, and he came to Moses, and he came to the people, and he came to each one of the prophets; and you should have no fear;…he will come again… Do not be afraid; even now Jesus Christ is being sent. He is not lying. He says, “I am with you always until the consummation of the age”. He is not lying. “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I too am in their midst”. Since therefore Jesus Christ is near and at hand and prepared and is a girded high priest to offer our intercessions to the Father, let us arise and offer sacrifices through him to the Father.’
He was real and alive to Isaiah and Peter and James and John and Paul. He is real and alive to the cherubim and seraphim, to the Mother of God and John the Baptist and all the saints. He is really, truly and substantially present in this Mass, ‘near and at hand’. And he is a consuming, beatifying fire.