God’s call prompts mission and action

| Msgr. Jeffrey Steenson | February 7, 2019 | 0 Comments

For the person in biblical times, there was an intuitive dread about suddenly encountering the living God.

“No one shall see me and live,” the Lord told Moses on Mount Sinai (Ex. 33:20). Such was the gulf fixed between the all-holy God and sinful humanity that the biblical person instinctively turned the eye downward and would not dare to approach, if visited by a theophany.

Jesus Christ Calling Peter Fisherman

iStock/bpperry

The gulf was so unbridgeable that the early Church would develop a theology that stated every divine visitation before the Incarnation was mediated by an angel; God in his essence was utterly hidden from us.

In our three readings for Mass Feb. 10, we meet three holy souls who have been visited by God and who would not presume on this grace.

In Isaiah 6, the magnificent vision of the heavenly liturgy which is invoked in every Mass at the Sanctus, the reluctant Isaiah is called to be a prophet. In a vision he is summoned to God’s throne in heaven, surrounded by the seraphim, the highest of the angelic orders. Isaiah is overcome by a sense of his utter unworthiness.

But then one of the seraphim touches a burning coal from the altar to his lips and purges his sins. He hears (but does not see) the Lord himself, who sends him forth to proclaim the word of the Lord.

In the second reading (I Cor. 15:1-11), Paul, whose encounter with the ascended Lord on the road to Damascus (Acts 9) was unique among the apostles, declares himself to be the least of the apostles. Only by the grace of God is he able to proclaim the Gospel and the revelations he has received.

And in the Gospel (Luke 5:1-11), Peter leaves behind his previous vocation of fisherman to become a fisher of men. He is visited by Jesus after an unproductive day at work on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus asks to use his boat to teach the people ashore. And then the Lord performs the miracle of the miraculous catch of fish. Peter is overwhelmed by this divine power that has come into his life. He falls to his knees and says, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

In all three of our readings today, this sense of unworthiness opens the way to vocation, being called by the Lord and being sent forth with a mission.

This is the experience of other great saints in the Bible who suddenly find themselves in the presence of God, such as Abraham (Gen. 18:27) and Job (Job 42:6). On Mount Sinai, at the giving of the Ten Commandments, the people begged Moses to mediate, lest they hear God speaking and die (Ex. 20:19).

These texts deeply moved our early Christian brothers and sisters. The tradition of sealing our lips with the sign of the cross at the proclamation of the Gospel is no doubt rooted in this sense of our unworthiness to stand before God’s holiness. St. Cassiodorus, who left politics to be a monk in A.D. 540, said that by signing our lips with the seal of the cross we pray to the Lord that he may cleanse our mouths which are disfigured by sin (Explanation of the Psalms 141.8).

Encountering the word of the living God, which throughout Scripture and tradition is described as a fiery experience, is for the redeemed people of God, not an occasion of fear but of hopeful serenity. A lovely hymn by Blessed John Henry Newman’s old Anglican colleague, John Keble, captures this sense so well:

“The fires, that rushed on Sinai down, In sudden torrents dread, Now gently light, a glorious crown, On every sainted head.”

Msgr. Steenson is ordinary emeritus of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. He retired this summer from teaching at St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity.


Sunday, February 10
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Category: Sunday Scriptures