FEBRUARY 7, 2010 FIFTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR: ISAIAH 6:1-8; 1 COR 15:1-11 LUKE 5: 1-11


The three readings of today’s liturgy speak to us of God’ holiness and of vocation. Each text treats of these topics in a decidedly distinctive manner. In the opening reading we are told in rather colorful and highly vivid detail of the call of Isaiah to take on the demanding and dangerous office of prophet. The occasion of his call was a vision that took place in the temple. He experienced a vision of God himself under the form of a majestic figure who radiated a holiness and power that was so overwhelming that Isaiah felt in mortal danger from contact with this awesome Being. The mere sight of such concentrated purity and magnificence, he was convinced, was lethal to the sinner he now recognized himself to be. Only after being purified by the angel with a burning coal taken from the altar before God and touched to his mouth does Isaiah hear the words that he perceives as an invitation to speak for God as a prophet. He responds with courage and generosity, offering himself as a minister to convey God’s word to his people.  


This account of the prophet’s vocation contains a fundamental truth that we do well to take to heart for it gives us some reliable information as to the nature of God himself and by implication conveys to us some ideas concerning our relation to God. There is nothing in Isaiah’s encounter with the Lord to suggest he has anything of the old benign Father figure about him. On the contrary, though the figure of God himself is not described, yet the effect of beholding him is made clear: to see God is overwhelmingly threatening because of his power and purity. The response is awareness of a need for purification. Only the pure can approach God without feeling dangerously exposed to destruction. That God is superlatively pure and holy, then, means that we must be sufficiently like him if we are not to feel threatened by exposure to his person. That he is love means that love is holy and pure, not soft and cuddly, and we are to take on something of his purity and spiritual force if we are to feel at ease and fulfilled in his presence. The Fathers of the spiritual life had grasped this lesson and took it to heart, teaching us that only when our likeness to God is restored can we expect to find ourselves fulfilled in his presence and to be united with him.


To reflect on what we are told of Saint Paul’ encounter with the Risen Lord Jesus is to arrive at this same awareness that the light emanating from the person of the Lord is a power that cannot tolerate what is not pure. Only by possessing some measure of likeness to God by purity of heart can any person sustain the sight of the all holy Lord with out a burning sense of corrosive shame. Paul, persecutor of the Church of Christ, is blinded by the same light that Isaiah saw in his vision. After seeing the holy light of Christ in his person Paul experienced himself very differently. He knew himself, not as a holy collaborator with God, but as an unworthy servant, as he states in the second reading today; ever after, he considered himself as the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, he writes to the Corinthians. He never forgot the vision that overwhelmed him as he was on the way to Damascus; its brightness burned itself, as it were, into his soul. He judged himself ever after in the light of God himself. He found a new confidence only in trusting himself to the mercy of the one he sought to resemble. He truly ascribed all the good in him to the love and grace of his Savior.


The Gospel today tells us of still another encounter with the power and holiness of God. Upon experiencing the miracle of the catch of the153 fish, the apostles experience a profound fear, for in this event they experienced the presence of the all holy one. Peter was so struck with awe at Jesus’ person he felt totally unworthy of his presence. “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man”, he exclaimed. Like Isaiah, encounter with the powerful holiness revealed in Jesus, he realized how sinful he himself was.


The lesson for all of us from today’s liturgy would seem to be that we do well to prepare ourselves for meeting God by working seriously at purifying our minds and hearts. This is the work of prayer that comes from our inmost center, from the depths of the heart. That kind of prayer does not just happen of itself; it is a great labor. ”Prayer of the heart is the true work of the monk”, our Fathers told us. We must work at it by daily and faithful dedication to meeting God within. He makes himself accessible only to trusting faith and ardent desire. To learn to know God by encountering him in prayerful trust carries over into our relations with other and into our work. This is the kind of meeting with the all holy God that our readings confront us with today. May we follow up in our lives with the responses that changed the lives of Isaiah, Paul and Peter, so as to become, with them, friends of the living God, members of his household, now and eternally. &      

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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