The First Reading from the book of the Isaiah describes the call of eponymous prophet, “in the year that King Uzziah died.” (c. 740 B.C.) Isaiah witnesses the heavenly worship of the seraphim and cherubim before the Throne of the LORD. He knows that he is not supposed to set his eyes upon this, as in the Torah, the Israelites are required to undergo many purification rites to even enter His earthly Tabernacle and later the Temple. Moreover, in multiple places, the Israelites are instructed not to come too close to the “mountain of God” so that they will not be consumed by the glory of God. Only Moses is allowed up on the mountain and even then, God does not show Him the fullness of His glory.
Isaiah is fully aware of his unworthiness, not only personally but that of his People. Uzziah is one of the few “good” kings of Judah at this time as was his grandfather Joash. Joash’s son (Uzziah’s father) Amaziah is recorded in the second book of Kings as doing “what was right in the sight of the LORD, yet not like his father David…But the high places were not removed; the People still sacrificed and burned incense on the high places.” (14:3-4) It is unclear whether the high places were idolatrous cult sites or whether the People were worshipping the LORD at these locations, but they should have been worshipping at the Tempe in Jerusalem. Moreover, the second book of Chronicles adds that Amaziah “did what was right in the sight of the LORD yet not with a blameless heart.” (25:2) Some translations substitute “whole” for “blameless” which better the captures the sense. In fact, a few verses after this, the Chronicler reports that Amaziah eventually fell into idolatry as well and was defeated by the Kingdom of Israel and then overthrown and assassinated by a conspiracy as a result. (25:22-23,27)
Uzziah himself is also described as having done “what was right in the sight of the LORD” (26:4) at first. He too would eventually fall, but it was not into apostasy. Rather, Uzziah attempted to offer incense on the altar of incense in the Temple. As Azariah, the High Priest, told him when he and the other “withstood King Uzziah..‘It is not for you, Uzzi′ah, to burn incense to the Lord, but for the priests the sons of Aaron, who are consecrated to burn incense. Go out of the sanctuary; for you have done wrong, and it will bring you no honor from the Lord God.’” (II Chronicles 26:18) Uzziah becomes angry and in punishment God strikes him with leprosy on his head. This was a fitting punishment as it now permanently excluded him from Temple worship. Uzziah would live for another nineteen years but from that point his son Jotham ruled in his place as regent.
According to rabbinic tradition, Amoz, the father of Isaiah, was the brother of Amaziah, making Isaiah the cousin of Uzziah. Isaiah would have thus had full knowledge of these events and they must have brought to the forefront of his mind with the recent death of his royal cousin. Uzziah was struck with permanent ritual uncleanness for entering the earthly Temple of the LORD and attempting to do something that he was unworthy to do. Thus, his lament, “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5)
Hearing him, a seraph flies from its place around the Throne, bearing an ember from the altar with which it touches Isaiah’s lips. This is remarkable, as the vision is occurring in the Temple, so the altar that is mentioned would have the altar of incense at which Uzziah had attempting to usurp a priestly prerogative almost two decades before. Instead of the vision of God’s glory destroying Isaiah, God sends one of his angels to literally reach down and touch Isaiah with something holy, thus rendering his lips (and my extension himself) holy, so that he might be worthy to answer the prophetic call in the following verse, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” (Isaiah 6:8)
When the seraph touched Isaiah’s lips with the ember, they were consecrated for his prophetic mission. The word “consecrate” comes to us directly from Latin, and is a compound word formed from the words con, which is a variant of cum, meaning “with”, and sacer, which means “holy” and from which the word “sacred” is derived. It literally means “with holy.” The Hebrew word translated here as “holy” means “other.” God is so categorically different from His creation that even His angels, who are pure spirit like He is, refer to His otherness as His defining attribute. “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts.” (Isaiah 6:3)
The New Covenant
There is a reason the Church repeats these words just before the Eucharistic Prayer, often referred to as the Consecration. Just as the presence of God entered and filled the Temple in Isaiah’s vision, so the Real Presence of God the Son, Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ fills the temple of the Church in each and every Mass. Just as the sacrifices of the Old Covenant were offered on the altar in Jerusalem, so the Perpetual Sacrifice of Our Lord on the Cross, offered once and for all at Golgotha, is made present on the altar in every Catholic church. And just as the priests and Levites of the Old Covenant were ordained, anointed and, as Azariah told Uzziah, “consecrated” in order to minister in the Temple and offer sacrifice, so the priests of the New Covenant are ordained, anointed and consecrated to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
In the Old Covenant, everything that had to do with Temple worship was consecrated and set aside for the service of God. So do in the New Covenant, not only the church itself but the vessels, altar and even the hands of the priest are consecrated to the service of God. This is only fitting, as St. Thomas Aquinas tells us, “Thirdly, because out of reverence towards this sacrament, nothing touches it, but what is consecrated; hence the corporal and the chalice are consecrated, and likewise the priest's hands, for touching this sacrament.” (Summa Theolgoiae III.82.3)
At Sinai, the People dared not even approach the mountain upon which the glory of God had descended. In Isaiah’s vision, God condescended to send a seraph from around His Throne to purify the lips of Isaiah, rather than destroying him for his unworthiness, as Isaiah feared He would. Now Our Blessed Lord comes to us in an even more radical way, inviting not only into His Real Presence but to consume Him, making our bodies, ever so briefly, a living Temple for Him.
Do we, like Isaiah in the First Reading and Peter in the Gospel, consider our worthiness to receive Him? Do we ensure that not only lips but are very soul are purified so that we will be worthy to receive Him, confessing any grave sins of which we are conscious in the Sacrament of Reconciliation before receiving Him in Holy Communion? Do we refrain from receiving if we have not done so? When we receive, do we approach in a reverent manner, acting like we actually believe that this is God the Son Himself, truly and substantially present, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, Whom we are about to receive?
Let us pray that we ourselves are cognizant of own unworthiness in the Presence and like Isaiah accept the burning ember of God’s grace, painful though it may be, to purify us. And let us also pray that our religious leaders may have the courage of Azariah and his eighty fellow priests to withstood political leaders who attempt to approach the altar of the LORD and receive His Body and Blood unworthily.