Fr. Patrick Fitzgerald-Lombard, O.Carm., is parish priest of the parish of St. Thomas of Canterbury, Mayfield, Sussex. He is a member of the Aylesford Community. Today, Fr. Patrick is reflecting on the readings from yesterday's Mass. Please read Fr Patrick's introduction to these reflections and please look at the readings for Sunday Mass here (these will open in a separate window for ease of reading):
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of hosts”
Isaiah’s vision of the all holy God which we hear this Sunday has echoed down through the ages. Isaiah describes his vision of God with imagery from the Temple in Jerusalem, in which his experience takes place. For him the Temple was an earthly expression of the heavenly temple. Now, every time and everywhere Christians gather to celebrate Eucharist, our Mass, they proclaim Holy, holy, holy, the Sanctus in Latin. As part of the prayer of thanksgiving, which is the centre of the Mass, we join with all the choirs of angels to acclaim our all-holy God: And so, with the Angels and all the Saints, we declare your glory as with one voice we acclaim...” 1 The Eucharistic prayer begins with the preface which announces the particular reason for giving thanks during that Mass, the season of the year or the saint being celebrated. These days there are around a hundred of them. Then we the assembly join our voice to that of all heaven and earth in the proclamation, giving glory to God, with words inspired those words heard by Isaiah. In every celebration of the Eucharist, the Church is taken up into the eternal liturgy in which the entire communion of saints, the heavenly powers, and all of creation give praise to the God of the universe2. The prayer that follows, of which there are now about ten, then celebrates the work of our redemption and continues with “therefore”. It is a petition asking God to accept and bless the gifts that they may become the body and blood of our Lord. Especially notable here are the two invocations of the Holy Spirit, on the gifts before the consecration and then on the assembled community after it.
The traditional Roman Canon includes the prayer asking that the gifts be borne by the Angel to God’s altar on high so that receiving the gift ourselves we may be filled with every grace and blessing. This celebration on high recalls the heavenly worship in the book of the Apocalypse. Once the letters to the Churches have described the earthly realities of the Church, we are immediately taken up to heaven with the praise first of God and then of the Lamb. There the four living creatures proclaim the triple Holy whilst at the end it is every creature in heaven and on earth who sing blessing and honour and glory to the one sitting on the throne and to the Lamb. Here the tiple Holy praises the Lord God Almighty “who was and is and is to come”. For praise in heaven, the eternal nature of God is stressed, past present and his future coming. Christians also understood this in terms of the Trinity as found in at least one hymn we sing regularly: Holy Holy Holy Lord God Almighty.
Isaiah though is firmly on earth just as we are. For him, God is the Holy One of Israel, the God who has revealed himself to his people. For Isaiah as for us the triple Holy leads into the whole earth full of God’s glory. We can take “holy” and “glory” as two signs of a coin. Our all holy God is almighty, totally other. . In no way can we presume upon God though we might seem to do so at times. However, God has also revealed himself to us and that is his glory, the divine presence in the world. God is transcendent and immanent.. It is often manifested in dramatic events, thunder and lightening, earthquakes as for Moses. It could also be sensed in the still small voice heard by Elijah, Above all, God’s glory is shown in a person, Jesus: we beheld his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth as in the prologue to the Gospel of John. In him, the Church is holy and we humans are called to be holy3
For Isaiah, we hear this Sunday of his great vision when God called him to be a prophet. Last Sunday we heard about Jeremiah’s call to be a prophet. The two accounts of Isaiah and Jeremiah are often taken as the two typical accounts of these calls. They are important as the way in which the prophet justified his message to his contemporaries, unpopular as it might be, critical of society or of the leadership. Besides their warnings all the prophets do also include messages of salvation. For both Isaiah and Jeremiah, the Sunday reading only provides the basic call from God, which is why is important that we read both encounters with God in your Bible. The reactions of the two prophets are quite different. Jeremiah is notably reluctant and needs persuasion by God to undertake his ministry. Isaiah though volunteers but is told by God just how unpopular his message will be and how the people will look and listen but not understand. Not surprisingly, this message was picked up by early Christians as they tried to understand why Jesus was rejected by his people and so it is quoted several times in the New Testament.
The Gospel then tells us how Peter with James and John are also called to service, this time by Jesus. There is a similar scene with the risen Lord at the end of John’s Gospel but the purpose there is quite different, it’s about reconciliation and joyful recognition. Here we are at the beginning of the story with Jesus teaching the crowds before getting into Simon’s boat. As a result of the great catch, Peter can only proclaim that he is a sinful man, just like Isaiah. Peter probably knew much about Jesus already, Jesus having healed his mother in law. But this catch of fish is overwhelming that Jesus is no longer Master as before the catch, now Peter calls him Lord. Whereas Isaiah’s experience of the holy took place in a building, the Temple, Peter’s experience is with a person, Jesus. The result is more a commissioning than a calling, there is no “follow me” as in the other Gospels. Luke is setting up Simon Peter to be leader of the disciples not only in the Gospel but also in the early Church in the Acts of the Apostles.
For both Isaiah and Peter, their only response to the all-holy presence was the awareness of their sinfulness: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” as Peter says. Isaiah has his sin blotted out whilst Jesus tells Peter not to be afraid. God’s mercy is far greater than our sins. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” as another sinner wrote. St Paul was though so aware that nothing could come between us and the love of God in Jesus. Like Peter and Isaiah, Paul had a profound experience of conversion and we hear it’s effect on him this Sunday from the letter to the Corinthians. Conversion can often lead people to overemphasise their sin ever after but Paul was aware of the grace of God working within him.
Our three readings this Sunday show three very different people and their experience of being commissioned as servants of God. For these three, a Hebrew prophet in the Solomonic Temple, a Galilean fisherman surprised by an enormous catch, and a Greek-writing Pharisee reflecting on being a Christian convert, their experiences of the all holy God who reaches out to them in their sinfulness tells us much from which we can learn and reflect.
1 Common Preface VI
2 See: Bishops of England and Wales “Celebrating the Mass”, 192
3 See: 2nd Vatican Council Constitution on the Church, chapter 5