Confronted with the glory of God

The Transfiguration

This past Sunday’s Gospel lesson from the BCP was from Luke 5, the story of the miraculous catch of fish. When St Peter witnesses the miracle, here is his response to Jesus:

When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord. For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the draught of the fishes which they had taken

This is the biblical response to meeting the divine. When God the Father spoke on the mount of Transfiguration, St Peter went from, ‘Let’s build tents,’ to falling on his face terrified (Mt 17:6).

At the moment of his throne-room vision, the prophet Isaiah declared:

“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!” (Is. 6:5 ESV)

When Ezekiel has his super-intense vision of the divine:

So when I saw it, I fell on my face (Ez 1:28 NKJV)

Moses was told by God that he would not be able to look on God’s face and live, so God hid him in a cleft in a rock and covered him with his hand as God passed by. Moses only saw the divine back. Later, when Moses descended from the mountain, even his own reflected glory was too much, and the people veiled his glowing face.

When St John had mighty things revealed to him by an angel, he, too, fell on his face (Rev. 22:8).

Angels and people who have been close to God are more than we can handle, so far as the Bible shows us. God Himself … well. He’s a different story.

And yet we figure that making the worship of the Most Holy Trinity a combination of rock concert and stand-up comedy routine will help us encounter the Most High God.

The Bible, on the other hand, says:

Worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness; tremble before him, all the earth! (Ps. 96:9)

And so the tradition feels that incense and icons, Gothic architecture and polyphony, stained glass and the ringing of bells, the prostration of human bodies on the floor, are the way to best encounter the Most High God. God is mystery, and true mystery is not a puzzle to be solved but an immensity to be embraced and entered into.

God, that is, is neither your boyfriend nor your best friend.

Let’s restore some reverence to our worship and devotion.

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Jerome on the Seraphim in Isaiah 6

Bernardino Luini – St Jerome in Penitence, 1525

I have before my the Isaiah volume of The Church’s Bible, edited by Robert Louis Wilken, a commentary that uses the ancient and medieval sources as a guide to interpretation (like the more famous Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture but, in my opinion, easier to use/read). Here we read from St Jerome’s commentary:

In Hebrew there is some ambiguity whether the pronoun his refers to God or to each seraph. For this reason, it is difficult to determine whether the seraphim were covering their own faces and feet or whether they were covering the face and feet of God. (p. 69)

Jerome, in this instance, takes us back to where we started with Ambrose last time. He goes on to interpret the veiling of God’s face and feet in the same way that, had we continued with Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan also does:

This veiling indicates that we cannot know what happened in the past before the creation of the world and what will happen in the future after the end of the world. Don’t be surprised that some things are veiled to the seraphim, for the apostles revealed the Savior to those who believed, but hid him from unbelievers. Furthermore, there was a veil before the ark of the covenant. (p. 70)

We’ll take a quick look at what the authors in this commentary tell us about the beatific vision shortly…

The Throne of God (What’s going on in Isaiah 6?)

Fresco of St. Ambrose in Sant’Ambrogio, Milan (photo by me!)

One of the most famous parts of Isaiah, one of the few parts of the Bible useful for angelology, and a source for part of the liturgy, Isaiah 6 can be a perplexing place to find oneself, in any language. I was recently reading Ambrose of Milan, On the Holy Spirit, and I noticed that the translator did not provide Isaiah 6:2 as I expected. What I expected was what I grew up with, NIV:

Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying.

Instead, where the NIV has ‘their faces … their feet’, I read ‘His face … His feet’. Being smug, I assumed the translator got his Latin wrong and confused the two different Latin words for ‘his’, one which can be rendered ‘his own’, the other which means someone else’s. But I checked Ambrose, On the Holy Spirit 3.160, and found:

et Seraphim stabant in circuitu ejus; sex alae uni, et sex alae alteri, et duabus velabant faciem ejus, et duabus velabant pedes ejus, et duabus volabant

Which is to say that the translator got it right. This is the same text that Vulgate has — the Seraphim are covering the Lord Sabaoth’s face and feet, not their own. My guess is that, since the Geneva Bible, the KJV, the NIV, and the ESV have the Seraphim covering their own feet, the Hebrew has the same. The Greek is vague — each Seraph covers the face and the feet, using the definite article and no possessive. (Unless this is a use of the article someone could detail for me…)

Hence the Old Latin used by Ambrose and the later Vulgate version of this verse.

Therefore, we cannot give priority to the Vulgate/Ambrose text, since the Septuagint (and presumably the Hebrew) needn’t lead that direction.

Nevertheless, the Seraphim covering the Lord of Sabaoth’s face and feet pointed to an important point that I (we?) rarely acknowledge, barely grasp:

Isaiah has had a vision of the throne-room of God, and he presumably saw some sort of anthropomorphic figure seated on a throne and surrounded by six-winged Seraphim.

We probably subconsciously shy away from this due to the fact that the LORD has already told Moses that no one may look on his face and live and that 1 John says that no one has ever seen God. And yet in the Gospel of John Jesus does say that if we have seen him, we have seen the Father.

I think we should confront two possibilities here. I suspect that modern readers who are willing to take Isaiah’s vision as literal (as opposed to those who think it a theological-literary fiction) will go for option number one: God has created an image to project into Isaiah’s feeble, earth-bound, image-driven mind as a means of communicating with the prophet.

The second, and one I do hope has Church Fathers to back it up, is that this is Christ in glory. This one is less popular today either because we don’t like reading the New Covenant into the Hebrew Bible on literary-historical grounds (Isaiah can’t see Jesus because he doesn’t know about Jesus, even if Jesus is the Messiah) or we don’t like the implied supersessionism and appropriation of Jewish Scripture.

But if we actually believe historic Christian orthodoxy, we’ve already appropriated the entirety of Jewish Scripture simply by stating that Jesus is the Christ — Messiah, or that Jesus is Lord. Moreover, we go much further when we affirm Nicene-Chalcedonian orthodoxy and say that Jesus is of one substance with the Father.

Throw eternity into the mix, and we are also affirming that the man Jesus who was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate has also always existed in that body in the throne room of God. Because He is God and exists outside of time.

I find, therefore, a tantalising idea in the throne room vision of Isaiah, and that idea is that Isaiah has seen the risen, glorified Jesus of Nazareth, the Second Person if the Trinity, the pre-incarnate (yet incarnate!) Christ, who is the leader of heaven’s armies and will return on a white horse to bring justice to the earth (cf. Revelation).

Several decades after Ambrose, the goal of the monastic life was the vision of Christ-God, the beatific vision, found through cultivating purity of heart, according to John Cassian. And so ascetic-mystical theology, dogmatic theology, and biblical interpretation embrace.