Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time – February 7, 2010 – St. John’s Goshen
What links our Old Testament reading with the Gospel is the encounter of unworthy men with the holy God, Isaiah in our first reading, Simon Peter in the Gospel. Isaiah’s might be thought the more usual case; after all he was in the temple, the holy place, the place of God’s presence–where else would you expect to encounter God? Certainly not in a little fishing boat smelling of teeming fish on a small lake in an insignificant country, which is where a sweaty Simon is said to have met the Holy One.
But, it turns out, Isaiah’s experience also was not the normal experience of an ancient worshipping Israelite. Yes, it’s the holy place, the Temple. But what’s remarkable is that its walls and roof seem to fall away and the prophet finds himself in the presence of the Holy One Himself, seated on a high and lofty throne, attended by fiery angels, so powerfully crying out their song: “Holy! Holy! Holy!” that the house shakes as it fills with the smoke that, as often in the Bible, is the sign of the presence of the holy God. Imagine that happening to you, to anyone of us, here this morning, February 10, 2013, when we had come in for the ordinary 10:30 Sunday Mass. Imagine if we suddenly found ourselves face-to-face with God! Might there not be a moment when we too would want to admit our sinfulness, terrified that we have been brought before the Holy God, in need of being purified as with a glowing coal.
But isn’t that something of what is supposed to happen when we do come here for Mass? Didn’t we a few minutes ago confess our sinfulness and ask God’s forgiveness? Won’t we in a few minutes join the seraphim in their “Holy! Holy! Holy!”? Don’t we believe that the bread and wine will become the holy Body and Blood of Jesus Christ? And won’t we in another few minutes again confess: “Lord, I am not worthy”? The whole familiar ritual of the Mass is simply a framework within which the great encounter between Isaiah and his Lord can be re-enacted, made real again, when each of us and all of us sinners encounter the same holy God.
But, of course, that won’t and can’t happen automatically. We can say all the words in the ritual; we can strike our breasts at the Mea culpa; we can even receive the Body of Christ into our bodies. But if our hearts and minds are not here, then there won’t be, there can’t be, an encounter with the holy God, because an interpersonal encounter requires that two persons be present, and in such a case one of the persons needed is not here. And, of course, it is we who are absent, not the holy God.
Peter’s encounter is different. He has perhaps met Jesus before; at least he has no difficulty in allowing him to preach to the crowd from his little boat. But then Jesus tells Peter how to conduct his own fishing-enterprise. Though surprised, Peter obeys and there is a catch of fish so great it threatens to swamp the boats. This is the demonstration of the holy power of Christ that drives Peter to his knees and to his confession of his unworthiness: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” This is Peter’s echo of Isaiah’s consternation at being in the presence of the Holy One.
Perhaps we find Peter’s experience closer to our possibilities. He encounters God in the course of what had begun as an ordinary day. In accounts of conversions to Christianity one often finds similar, life-changing experiences described. Some of them may be dramatic. Thomas Merton described his startling recognition of the holiness of other people: “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers … There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander). Other experiences may be more subtle, perhaps really discerned only in retrospect, when we realize that we are different than we had been, have different interests, different values, different goals, love differently. And we recognize that this was not the result of our plan or our decision, but that this altered self is a gift, a gift of the Holy One.
We have described for us, then, two different ways in which we may encounter our God, what we do here on Sundays and the ordinary course of our lives. What we do the rest of the week differs from what we are doing in this hour, but we might usefully see this holy moment as a time for appreciating and giving thanks for the holiness of everyday life. The God who meets us in his word and grace here today will not be absent from us during the week, and just as it may require a concentration of mind and heart to make ourselves truly present to God during Mass, so also we might be sure to have those same hearts and minds open and receptive to the presence and power of God in the ordinary. As Peter found out, as Isaiah found out, there is just no way of predicting where we might meet God.