TO THE EDITOR, CATHOLIC TIMES, CREDO FOR FEB 4TH 2001
FR FRANCIS MARSDEN
“Qadosh, qadosh, qadosh, Yahweh Shevaoth.” sing the six-winged seraphs around the Lord, who sits upon a high throne. In this weekend’s Scripture readings, we hear about the call of the prophet Isaiah, and in the Gospel, the call of Peter, James and John to be apostles.
Isaiah’s vision of the All-Holy God comes first, and can be dated to 740 BC. The triple repetition “Holy, holy, holy!” is in fact a Hebrew superlative: “the holiest” or “most holy.” When the angels sing in Hebrew they have no comparative or superlative forms available for their adjectives! So for example: “God is the greatest” would have to be rendered “God is great, great, great.” But we may also like to think that the thrice-Holy hints at the future revelation of the Most Holy Trinity.
The seraphim are literally “the burning ones”, the angelic spirits of pure flame, who gather around the divine throne, to worship Him unceasingly. Other angels are sent out on apostolic missions and pastoral tasks, but the seraphim and cherubim are the contemplatives within the celestial hierarchy. Their sole task is to worship God and to reflect the Divine Holiness.
What is this Holiness of God?
The root meaning of the word “Holy” is separate, cut off, different. It describes the otherness of God, His intrinsic quality which makes Him different from humankind. Many readers are familiar with the Latin word “sanctus” (holy) which is derived from the verbs sancire – to hallow, consecrate, dedicate, make sacred or inviolable (hence English “sanctions” by which a person or nation is set apart, cut off). Tracing further back we come to the root secare, to cut, from which English words like sect, secateurs, and bisect are derived.
That which is holy or sacred is that which has come in contact with God or is reserved for divine worship. It is therefore set apart from everyday use. It stands in contrast to all that is profane, or literally, pro fanum, in front of or outside the temple. That which is holy is not of the secular world, the saeculum, the age or century. What is holy is of God and therefore of eternity.
The English “holy” is related to our words whole, health and healing. The Anglo-Saxon languages have the insight that God is the one who makes things whole and healthy, makes them to be as they were created to be.
The Biblical tradition is that the divine Holiness, God’s innermost essence, cannot be seen by mortal man. It would destroy such a frail and lowly being. What is seen is the Divine Glory: the radiance of light, goodness, purity, truth, and beauty, from God. He is unblemished, there is no speck of evil in Him. The divine Holiness clings to those who come into direct contact with God, like Moses in the Tent of Meeting. Every time he emerged from conversation with Yahweh, his face was so bright that the Israelites could not look at him.
What are the human reactions to this vision of Divine glory? The first instinct is one of fear, of real physical danger. This is not unreasonable. When King David was bringing the Ark of the Covenant containing the Decalogue, the focus of the Divine Presence, to Jerusalem, Uzzah put out his hand to steady it. Immediately he was struck dead. Man is not allowed to touch the dwelling place of the All-Holy.
The second human reaction to the All-Holy Divine Presence is one of extreme unworthiness and sinfulness.
Isaiah’s reaction upon seeing the Lord surrounded by the seraphim was: “What a wretched state I am in. I am lost! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have looked upon the King, the Lord of hosts.” The reaction of St Peter is similar when He realises that Jesus is from God, because he witnesses the miraculous catch of fish. Previously the fishermen had been out all night and caught nothing. “Away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
Yet this sense of fear and unworthiness need not have the last word. Peter, James and John abandon their livelihood and follow Jesus, who will make them fishers of men. Human beings experience a deep attraction towards the numinous, the supernatural, the Holy One. We have a fascination and a longing for Him who is the cause and reason for our existence.
Sooner or later, almost every individual grows weary of the cheap and deceitful answers broadcast by a noisy and querulous society, and begins to search for the real purpose of life. All that is then required is the willingness to undergo conversion and purification. Isaiah consents to have his lips cleansed by the seraph with the burning coal.
The Holiness of God is the key lesson of the Old Testament. When Moses meets God at the burning bush he is told: “Come no nearer, take off your shoes, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.” So often the prophets relayed God’s command to the people of Israel: “You shall be holy as I am holy. You will be my people, and I will be your God.”
The Scriptures relate God’s progressive revelation of His glory, His election and nurturing of His holy people within human history. They are summoned to share in the divine life. They must obey Him and grow to be like Him. They will share in His wisdom and goodness.
If we do not appreciate the Holiness of Yahweh, we will not have a clue what the Old Testament is all about. We will therefore misread and misinterpret the New Testament, because the Old Testament is the necessary preparation for the New.
Consequently we are likely to reduce God once more to a comfortable household idol, like those of the pagan tribes. We will invent an undemanding, even a chummy god, to be oftentimes ignored and sometimes bribed to obtain favours. We put God on the same moral level as a bloke in the pub. Or the opposite: we make a god in the image of a fearsome, insatiable, cruel and distant deity, some dreaded demon whom we try to keep clear of.
But the living God is not some household idol or tribal deity, to be cajoled or coaxed or pacified from a distance. He is the one God, supreme in Heaven and on earth. He is a God who wills the good of His creatures more than they do themselves. The correct human response to Him is neither blind terror nor a presumptuous familiarity bordering on contempt. It is awe, worship, reverence, and obedience: then we can be admitted to the loving divine intimacy.
“We have been given possession of an unshakeable kingdom. Let us therefore hold on to the grace that we have been given and use it to worship God in the way that he finds acceptable, in reverence and fear. For our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28-29)
This age which has lost the sense of the tremendous Holiness of God has correspondingly lost the sense of sin. Lacking the perception of holiness and the nature of divine Love, it also lacks perception of what is evil. Not knowing God, it does not know what offends God. People are incredulous when informed that God will not tolerate certain behaviour, because political correctness has taught them they must tolerate everything. Not discerning the way of holiness to heaven, the saeculum similarly fails to recognise the way of destruction that leads to hell.
It is ironic that in the New Testament the devils immediately recognise Christ as Son of God. It is only human beings who fail to grasp His Divinity. The demons are acutely aware that the divine Holiness is incompatible with their evil inclination. It is almost a physical danger to them. “What do you want with us, O Holy One of God? Have you come to destroy us?” It repels them, and they repel It. Goodness and wickedness are at war. The Holy and the unholy cannot co-exist together. Where the light shines, evil is exposed, shrivels up, must flee away.
Peter’s boat is of course a symbol of Holy Church. From the barque of Peter, Jesus teaches the whole world. Christ is the master of this boast, and he says to his followers: “Put out into the deep and let down your nets.” It is a challenge to be daring in our apostolate, to throw aside the pessimism which makes us cowards. Christ will guide us towards the inexplicable catch of fish, even though we feel that we have been labouring all night and caught nothing.
In his new Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte the Pope writes that after the grace-filled Jubilee year now “A new millennium is opening before the Church like a vast ocean upon which we shall venture, relying on the help of Christ”. “Now we must look ahead, we must "put out into the deep", trusting in Christ's words: Duc in altum!” Rooted in prayer, Christ calls us to apply our enthusiasm in mission.