When I was a young man, back in the 1970s, a lot of folk music waswritten for use in the Mass. Some of it was quite good. Some of itwasn’t. My least favorite piece of liturgical music from this era was asetting of the “Holy, Holy, Holy” composed in a style I can onlycharacterize as “California mellow.” I won’t try to sing it for you, but themelody was similar to “The Girl from Ipanema.” When I heard this piece ofmusic, it made me think of a loose reed saxophone being played in acocktail lounge, to the accompaniment of ice cubes rattling in glasses. OrI thought of a white sandy beach being caressed by gentle California surf,while sea gulls called out to one another – in key.
Clearly the composer badly missed the mood of our first readingtoday in which blazing figures are calling out to one another in awestruckvoices: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts. All the earth is full of Hisglory!” Their words make the earth quake. The temple shakes on itsfoundations, and the entire room fills with smoke. Isaiah finds his voice,and moans, “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips; yetmy eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!”
This is not an account of a friendly, relaxed encounter of a manwith a benign, harmless God. Rather, this is a human being deeply awareof his inadequacy and weakness, trembling in the presence of theunmitigated, undisguised, sovereign power of God. It is not the momentto play “The Girl from Ipanema.”
The symbolism of religion is similar to the symbolism ofgovernment. The early basilicas, for example, were modeled upon theancient Roman law courts. And in our reading from Isaiah, God isportrayed as a fearsome oriental monarch.
Ordinary people appearing before thrones tend to grovel, out of aninstinct for self-preservation. They say things like, “Might this worthlessservant make bold to utter a word in your gracious majesty’s ear?” In theU.K., real political power rests with Parliament, and the stylized, highlydeferential language used on state occasions in reference to the Queen, isreally a courtesy — an elegant custom. But, of course, it wasn’t alwaysthat way. People don’t quake in fear for their lives before Her MajestyQueen Elizabeth II. But an appearance before Queen Elizabeth I wasdoubtless an altogether different experience.
This point was brought home to me when I was living in East Africa.I noticed that the language politicians and others used in reference to thepresident, was very like the language used in Europe in the presence ofroyalty. But in East Africa, potentates tended to be really potent, andthe language was used not out of courtesy, but because of the awarenessthat one’s fortunes and even one’s continued existence might depend onthe whim of the ruler.
On a divine scale, this may be the experience that terrified Isaiah inthe temple, blinded Paul on the road to Damascus, and brought Peter tohis knees before Jesus. It is a sudden, accurate estimation of one’s ownstature and status, compared to those of the person before whom onestands. It’s an encounter with God’s holiness — that is the separateness,the apartness of God. God is other than we are, and this otherness, asour readings testify, can inspire feelings of unworthiness and a kind offear.
There has to be an element of otherness in our Christianunderstanding of God, for a God whom there could never be an occasionto fear, a safe God, a tame God, would be a contradiction in terms. Ofcourse, this is only one side of our understanding of God. The other sideis the immanent God — the God who is close to me — who is present inme. We read of this side of God in the intimate sensuous imagery of themystics. But the immanent God can’t be the whole story, for asChesterton wrote, “That Jones shall worship the God within him,ultimately turns out to mean that Jones shall worship Jones.”
God is both within us and over against us. In approaching God, weshould be simultaneously aware of incredible closeness, and infinitedistance. God doesn’t want us to be frightened. Jesus’ first words to thekneeling Peter are, “Do not be afraid.” If we look for common threads inall three readings, we discover that God wants to inspire, not terror, butconversion. And after conversion, there follows a life of service. Isaiahbecomes a prophet, Paul becomes the “hardest worker” among theapostles, Simon Peter becomes a fisher of men and women.
God becomes present to us in many ways — in the Eucharist, in thepoor, in Scripture, in the community. An awareness of God’s holiness,God’s otherness, God’s majesty, can only heighten our appreciation of theprecious gift we are offered when God in Christ, offers us Himself. AtMass on Sunday, we will make our own, the words of the seraphim inIsaiah: “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of hosts.” When we say the words,perhaps we will feel some of the awe and reverence they were intendedto convey.
Rev. Charles B. Gordon, C.S.C., is co-director of the Garaventa Center for Catholic Intellectual Life and American Culture at the University of Portland. He writes and records a regular blog called “Fractio Verbi.”