The experience of the Holy either leaves one wordless or causes one to sing, «Holy! Holy! Holy!» Revealing one’s uncleanness in the presence of the Infinite Purity of God, it provokes a crisis of abjection, a crisis designed by God to throw us, not into utter despair, but into the most reckless and daring of hopes.
God himself descends into the crisis. To Isaiah he sent one of the seraphim, «having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar» (Isaiah 6:6). The seraph touched the prophet’s mouth, saying, «Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin is forgiven» (Isaiah 6:7).
So powerfully evocative is this text, with its Eucharistic resonances, that the Churches of both East and West have enshrined it in their liturgies. In the traditional Roman Missal the priest prays before the gospel:
Cleanse the heart and lips of me, God almighty, as once thou didst cleanse the lips of the prophet Isaias with a burning coal. So clean a thing let thy loving mercy make of me, that I bring no shame on thy holy gospel by preaching it.In the Byzantine liturgy, the priest, after giving the deacon to drink of the Holy Chalice, addresses him saying, «Behold, this has touched thy lips and shall remove thy wickedness, and purge thy sin».
The experience of the Holy is given not to annihilate, nor to cast down, nor to condemn, nor to destroy, but to call to life, to purify, and to raise up. Isaiah bears witness to this today. Purified by the burning coal taken from the altar, he responds to the voice of the Lord. «And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‹Whom shall I send and who will go for us?› Then I said, ‹Here am I! Send me›» (Isaiah 6:8). (Read more.)Share