Vol. XII, March 2006


“I am a man of unclean lips” (Is 6:5ff)

Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

The vision of the prophet Isaiah, which we considered before, ended with his vocation. After having assisted at what we may call the “seraphic liturgy” before the throne of God he said:

“Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” Then flew one of the Seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.” And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.”                                            (Is 6:5-8)

We see the prophet’s reaction to this divine call in three steps:

1. The Enlightening Glory of Heaven

a) The Heavenly Liturgy

The Prophet starts this account with the tremendous statement: “I saw the Lord!” It is a powerful statement. Did not God repeatedly say: “Man shall not see Me and live” (cf., for example, Ex 33:20)! This vision of God must surprise us, therefore, all the more. The vision was still embellished with the praising of God’s majesty and glory by the Seraphim. The liturgical character was made evident by the temple, the solemnity of God’s presence in the temple and the chant of the Seraphim. Even the material world echoed His presence: “The foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of Him Who called, and the house was filled with smoke”. No one can experience such and not be moved, for “the knowledge of the living God is (the) way to love” (Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, 17 [acc. to the original German text; the English translation does not correspond perfectly]).

b) Conviction of Sin

Isaiah was shocked by this experience. He said: “Woe is me! For I am lost” (Is 6:5). The more man approaches God and the world of the angels, the more clearly his littleness is made manifest, the almost incomparable reality of his smallness. The prophet considers himself unworthy, impure, certainly unfitting in such holy place: “I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’” (Is 6:5). How shall we understand such a confession of “unclean lips”? The prophet realized that he does not fit harmoniously into the response which the other creatures give to their common Creator. The Seraphim are totally awe-struck. They are always conscious of the presence of God and respond to Him with honor, praise, thanksgiving and adoration. The material creation expresses its respect in tremblings and smoke, for “the whole earth is full of His glory” (v. 3). Man, on the contrary, (and not only the prophet!) seems to be blind to the presence of their Lord and God Who is so near to them.

If someone walked all his life only by moonlight, he could never imagine the clarity of the world in the sunshine. This may explain why the prophet now realized where he lived and with whom he was. Therefore, the “unclean lips” may refer to a real impurity as Jesus explains later: “What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts?…and they defile a man” (Mk 7:20-23). Isaiah may also be referring to the many words man speaks about passing matters which are not related to God and do not have their goal in eternity. Finally, he may be thinking of himself and many others who pray and sing Psalms, but their words are a poor image of the reality he now sees. The Lord will say to him later, “this people draw near with their mouth and honor Me with their lips, while their hearts are far from Me” (Is 29:13; cf. Mk 7:6-7).

The Glory of God and the echo of the angels and creation around God show the prophet that he and his fellow men ought to conform themselves to the other creatures, ought to join the angels’ joy and the material creatures’ fear. Frequently enough we have read in Scripture about similar situations in which man does show reverence before God and the angels. Take, for example, Moses before the burning bush (cf. Ex 3:5), the people’s reaction on mount Sinai (cf. Ex 20:18-20), St. Peter’s confession after the miraculous shoal of fish (cf. Lk 5:8) or even of St. John’s prostration just before the angel (cf. Rev 19:10). This fact makes the prophet’s reaction here hard to understand.

2. The Seraphim with the Burning Coal

What is the way for man to harmonize with the other creatures? Is he even capable of bearing the presence of “our God [Who] is consuming fire” (Heb 12:29)?

a) Harmony within Man

Before man can subordinate himself totally to God in harmony with the other creatures, he has to first restore harmony within himself, with the help of God. After the Original Sin, man’s many senses tend to their own proper objects. He has to coordinate them and, thus, unite or re-collect himself. He has to mortify any inordinate link to creatures (cf., for example, Mt 5:28). In this way he becomes free for God’s Will and can direct all his means towards Him Who is the goal of all life. His humility and the confession of his poverty or sinfulness will dispose him to receive further heavenly helps. God is waiting for that hour. He “never ceases to draw man to Himself” (CCC 27).

b) Purification as Grace from Above

The angel approached the prophet: “Then flew one of the Seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said: ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.’” (Is 6:6-7) Like “the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice” (Jn 3:29), so the angel mediates joyfully between God and man. He takes a coal from the altar, both of which have been interpreted by the Fathers as symbols for Christ, who was totally filled with the fire of the Holy Spirit. Both effects of a coal come forth from Him: He purifies and illumines. He said of Himself: “I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!” (Lk 12:49). This fire will “purify” man from his blindness for the spiritual world; it will help him to overcome his mediocrity and laziness. It will strengthen his will and make him burn for God through grace, like the Seraphim.

The angel touched the prophet’s lips with it, because from the lips comes not only evil, as we saw, but also the confession of salvation. For “every one who acknowledges Me before men, I also will acknowledge before My Father Who is in heaven” (Mt 10:32-33; cf. Lk 9:26). Man’s aptitude for the service of God and his union with heaven must come from God Himself. For this reason, the Church reminds us indirectly of the prophet when we priests pray: “Almighty God, cleanse my heart and my lips, that I may proclaim Your gospel” (Missal). We and the laity can ask for this grace especially at Holy Communion which sometimes was even administered by angels or even by a Seraph as in the case of St. Faustina (cf. Diary, 1676). For “the Eucharist…this living charity wipes away venial sins” (CCC 1394).

3. The Secret of the Call

The reality of the event receives its proof in the effect. After being purified, the prophet hears “the voice of the Lord”, which according St. Augustine’s and St. Bernard’s customary interpretation should be understood as the Son of the Father: “And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?’” (Is 6:8).

a) Purification as Preparation for the Divine Call

It seems that the purification allowed the communication. The Prophet was able to hear the call of God and had the disposition, the freedom and strength to dispose himself for God’s will and work: “Here am I! Send me.” Can there be any better fruit, especially when we think back on Moses who wrestled with God till He got angry (cf. Ex 3-4), or on Jeremiah who objected that he was incapable (cf. Jer 1:6). Isaiah declared himself courageously ready! The difference lies in the origin and in his purification. The future history confirms this lesson: Not the misery of the poor nor the spiritual famine in man alone will move man, but, yes, the greatness and beauty of God. It is God’s love and grace which draws man up to God, Who “has given His Son for our sake and gives us the victorious certainty that it is really true: God is love! It transforms our impatience and our doubts into the sure hope that…in spite of all darkness He ultimately triumphs in glory” (Deus caritas est, 39).

b) Liturgy as the Best Catechesis

The vocation of the Prophet allows us to be still more concrete: That the liturgical celebration and manifestation of God’s holiness moves man is an age-old experience of the Church. Among the threefold munus, “the exercise of charity, ...the administration of the sacraments and the proclamation of the word” (ibid., 22), the Liturgy is the best catechesis. It embraces the entire sacramental life, mainly the sacrament of Penance and of the Altar, which reminds us of the twofold effect of the Seraphim’s coal, purifying and enlightening. Here the words become life; the faith is celebrated; hope becomes prayer. In the Liturgy man meets God, God as the fire which purifies, as the light which illumines, as the love which calls and as strength which sends and sustains. The Liturgy opens the source of love and brings man right before the throne of God on earth, where the Seraphim adore Him in ecstatic love and trembling fear. John Paul II stated once: “Many who first were altar boys”, that is, who watched the priest from a short distance attentively at the altar, the throne of God in our “temples”, “later became priests” (General audience of September 29, 1993, A Catechesis on The Creed, Daughters of St. Paul 1998, vol. IV, p. 390). There, near the Lord, the angels touch those who are called and set them on fire. Is it not interesting that the different polls among priests today confirm that the great majority are still enthusiastic about their vocation and almost none would marry even if they had the choice (cf. Friedl and Reynolds, Extraordinary Lives, Indiana 1997, 10-12).  

4. Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

How near we find ourselves every day to Isaiah at Holy Mass. Clearly, the Liturgy is a holy act. Therefore, it has to be accurately celebrated, with respect, joy and solemnity (cf. CCC 1387). Then God will shine through and souls will find Him. A worthy celebration makes the faithful aware of the necessity of preparation and purity. Let us ask the Seraphim, that they help us to be pure and that they take care of the purification of our people. With their help and zeal we can celebrate worthily and all join them in their unending hymn of praise, “Holy, holy, holy…”.

Fr. Titus Kieninger, ORC