the holiness of the Lord

(from the second Sunday in Lent: I am catching up…)

Isaiah6

The scene that follows the announcement ‘holy, holy, holy’ is dramatic: ‘the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke’. Isaiah’s response is not worship, as we might expect. Instead, he exclaims, ‘Woe is me!’ Seeing the holiness of the Lord makes Isaiah aware of his own lack of holiness, and fearful: ‘a man of unclean lips’ should not (he thinks) behold ‘the King, the Lord of hosts’. God’s glory shows up all that is unworthy about us. Similarly Peter, in the gospel reading from a few weeks ago, responds to the miraculous catch of fish: ‘Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man’. Beholding the greatness of the Lord brings about a new, and unsettling, revelation of our own lack of sanctity. The response from on high is not judgment, however, but comfort. One of the seraphim brings a burning coal from the altar, touches Isaiah’s lips with it, and announces, ‘Behold…your guilt has been taken away, and your sin forgiven’. Likewise Jesus reassures Peter (in the same words the angel used to put Mary at ease): ‘Do not be afraid.’

Contemplating the holiness of God ought to make us mindful of the ways we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. This is not the way into condemnation, though, but the door to forgiveness and new life. For both Isaiah and Peter, the recognition of his own unworthiness marks the beginning of a career (if we may call it that) in the service of God. Isaiah accepts the invitation to take God’s word to the people of Israel, and Peter becomes that rock on which the Church is built. Our own careers of discipleship may be less dramatic, but God nevertheless promises to draw us near and involve us in the real drama—the drama of our redemption and that of the whole world. We need not ask whether we are worthy; we need only allow God to make us so.

With angels and archangels

This Lent, I am writing a series on the Sanctus for my parish newsletter. Although I do sometimes wonder whether anyone reads the back of the bulletin, a few people have been kind enough to remark on the short pieces. (I did a series on the creed in the autumn.) Here is the first installment (printed for the first Sunday in Lent):

During Lent, we direct our attention to the holiness of God more than at any other time of year. Not only that: we strive to imitate that holiness. One of the ways the Church has called the holiness of God to our minds comes from the sixth chapter of Isaiah: the prophet sees the seraphim, who call out to one another: ‘holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’

The acclamation has been a part of the Church’s liturgy since the early part of the fifth century, though it was probably in use from even earlier times. (The ‘Benedictus qui venit…’ was attached to the acclamation very early, and in future weeks we will look more closely at it.) For example, St Augustine would recognize the Latin text we sing, although the traditional Gregorian plainchant would not have been familiar to him. (What we rightly consider ancient—dating from the 8th century and widespread by the 11th—had not yet been developed in Augustine’s day!)

It is not just the antiquity of the text that ought to inspire us, however. The inclusion of the Sanctus in the Roman canon in the 5th century brought in the idea ‘that by joining the angels in their song we participate in the heavenly liturgy’ (Enrico Mazza, The Eucharistic Prayers of the Roman Rite, p. 48).  And this provides an important clue to the means by which we imitate the Lord’s holiness; by participation. All our Lenten practices—prayer and giving, and giving up—do not work magic on their own. Rather, by them we join ourselves to the Lord’s suffering. It is his passion and death that worked for our salvation, and in his resurrection that we are raised to new life. So in all that we do this Lent, our aim is to make more space for our Lord, so that we can say with the apostle Paul, ‘it is no longer I who live, but he who lives in me.’ When we attend to the presence of God among us and in us, and we participate in him as he dwells in us, holiness will be ours as well.

 

with angels and archangels

We never had a plan for taking the children to Mass, beyond taking them to Mass. I've read the strategies of really organized parents, in awe of their attention to detail and advance preparation. I am not that organized, and I take full responsibility for that. If walking around outside with the toddler is what it takes, then that's what we do. And we have had some pretty unpleasant moments with the children during Mass.
 
I remember going to church with my mom when I was a child. We always sat in the front row (effective, I think–at least there you're bound to notice something, as my kids sometimes do). She gave me lifesavers, tropical fruit flavor, which were really quite effective. (Banana and coconut were my favorite.) My kids don't particularly like sweets (which is otherwise great), so that's not really an option for me.
 
As they get older, the still-and-quiet routine gets easier. Getting them really to attend to what's happening, though–that's another story. One Sunday recently Iain (just before he turned 7) dug my iPhone out of my bag and started playing can knockdown during the liturgy of the Eucharist. However displeased I was, I wasn't willing to incite loud and angry protest in the front row. So he might have looked like he was kneeling piously….but no.
 
That's not to say I don't have certain hard-and-fast rules. Everyone stands and says the Our Father. And that makes me happy. (Honestly, it does.) I am always trying to strike a balance: on the one hand, I want the children to begin to grasp the significance of what's happening; on the other hand, I don't want to make the experience of going to Mass into an hour-long prison sentence every Sunday. And I find myself holding in tension the need to express my own spirituality by engaging with the Mass, and the need to attend to the children, who are engaging on a very different level.
 
Sometimes I fail. (Shocking, I know.) But those moment are the moments when I am most grateful for the liturgy of the Catholic Church. Last Sunday, between policing Iain on the iPhone and discouraging Anna from trying to engage the kids behind us in conversation, I completely lost track of where we were…until suddenly my attention was grabbed again, just in time to join in the Sanctus: '…with angels and archangels…'
 
Joining in. That's what it is about. It is about taking part in the ongoing praise of God that happens in eternity, for eternity. Not about perfectly behaved children, or about the quality of my singing (I'm terrible). I think some weeks I depend completely on the angels and archangels to glorify God, as I am working to keep my children from storming the sanctuary. 'Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church…' indeed: the faith of the Church, like the liturgy, does not depend on me. It is. However focused or distracted I am, the worship happens, the Mass happens. Knowing that is incredibly humbling as it is freeing.
 
In his 1947 encyclical Mediator Dei, Pope Pius XII wrote:
Jesus Christ burned with zeal for the divine glory; and the offering of His blood upon the cross rose to heaven in an odor of sweetness. To perpetuate this praise, the members of the Mystical Body are united with their divine Head in the Eucharistic sacrifice, and with Him, together with Angels and Archangels, they sing immortal praise to God and give all honor and glory to the Father Almighty (71).
 
'Zeal for the divine glory' seems pretty far from many of my Sunday experiences. If I am burning with anything, it is probably way less holy than that. But I know that's what it is about: participating in the self-offering of the Son to the Father, in the Holy Spirit. All we do is respond to the love of God as it comes to us through Jesus. And even our response is helped by the Spirit (my attention just happened to be drawn back to the liturgy at the Sanctus…).
 
Deo gratias.