Overflowing holiness

This week’s lectionary blog draws on all three of the suggested readings for the coming Sunday: Luke 5.1-11; 1 Corinthians 15.1-11 ; Isaiah 6.1-8 [9-13] but particularly focuses on the numinous call vision of Isaiah. It was partly prompted by the beauty of Salisbury Cathedral and its modern font, pictured above.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe


I find it a visceral experience whenever I walk into Salisbury Cathedral and see its modern font, designed and created by William Pye and placed in the nave near to the main entrance door in 2008. It is quite literally a visceral experience – it gets me in the gut, it is so beautiful and so ‘right’. It is a combination of its cruciform shape, the continuing ‘overflowing’ of the water from each of its corners, yet an apparent wonderful stillness on the water’s surface which allows stained glass windows to be reflected in it. Appropriately, the worship at the Cathedral at certain seasons of the year – Epiphany and the post-Easter period – incorporates the font into the beginning or conclusion of the Sunday eucharistic liturgy.

It was Salisbury Cathedral and its font that came to mind as I was reflecting on the lectionary readings for this coming Sunday, the Gospel being Luke 5.1-11 (Luke’s account of the call of Peter and his friends), complemented by 1 Corinthians 15.1-11 (in which Paul lists the witnesses to the resurrection – including even himself) and Isaiah 6.1-8 [9-13] (the call vision of the prophet Isaiah).

It is fairly easy to see the common thread that must have been in the minds of the lectionary compilers as they grouped these readings together. In each case it is a call to God’s service – of Peter and his companions, of Paul, of Isaiah. Each recipient of the call also feels themselves deeply unworthy of it (‘Depart from me for I am a sinful man’/ ‘I am unfit to be called an apostle’/ ‘Woe is me… I am a man of unclean lips’). But it is important to notice another thread that they have in common – that in each case the call is preceded by a divine revelation, and the willingness to accept the call is a response to this revelation. In the case of the Gospel reading the ‘revelation’  is something very practical and concrete – a great shoal of fish which was presumably very welcome to men who earned their living in this way. In the case of Paul it is the privilege he has been given of seeing the resurrected Jesus, in spite of having been initially a persecutor of the early church. In the case of Isaiah it is his vision of God seated upon his throne, and the song of the seraphim that accompanies it.

The pattern in each case is that human response depends on divine initiative. And I don’t think it is wrong to describe such divine initiative as a divine ‘overflowing’. (Which was partly the link in my mind with the font at Salisbury Cathedral.) God is not static – and neither are God’s relationships with human beings, and indeed our world. There is a wonderful comment by John Piper that ‘mission is the overflow of God’s delight in being God’.  A year or so ago I explored the expression used for ‘overflowing’ in the New Testament. I was interested to discover that when we read in our English translations the word ‘abundant’ – as for example in John 10.10 ‘I have come that they may have abundant life’, the Greek original for ‘abundant’ comes from the same verbal stem as words translated elsewhere (especially in 2 Corinthians) as ‘overflowing’.  The implication is that God’s abundance is never static: it overflows and changes whatever it encounters.

As we reflect on this we are coming close to the paradox that is at the core of biblical – and Christian – faith. It is a paradox that we proclaim each Sunday when we say or sing the ‘Sanctus’ as a key part of our eucharistic prayer. Yet perhaps our very familiarity has dulled the breath-taking nature of the paradox, so that we are lulled rather than challenged to our ‘gut’.  For the words, which come of course from the call vision of Isaiah 6, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory’ contain what is in some ways an unresolvable contradiction. The sentence begins by proclaiming the holiness of God, with the three-fold repetition of the word ‘holy’ suggesting a superlative – the absolute, extraordinary holiness of God. In the world of the Bible, and the culture of the Temple, the core understanding of ‘holiness’ was the idea of separation, linked to divine transcendence or otherness. It is no accident that the Hebrew word for ‘holy’ qdsh contains within it the sound of something being ‘cut’ – something being separated. Holiness was dangerous, if ‘ordinary’ ‘unclean’ human beings got too close to the ‘holy’ – unless they had previously taken elaborate precautions – they put themselves in mortal danger. Hence Isaiah’s cry ‘Woe is me…’.  

And yet that Sanctus, that proclamation of God’s ultimate otherness, goes on to affirm, ‘The whole earth is full of his glory’. ‘Glory’ in the biblical idiom, is a way of describing the visible presence of God.  In one sense this statement is totally illogical. For divine holiness and created earthliness do not belong together – they are poles apart. To speak of God’s visible presence throughout the whole earth ‘transgressed’ the normal bounds of both humanity and divinity. Indeed it could put what was earthly in dire danger. Unless… the ‘earthly’ is willing to allow itself to be changed and ‘made holy’, so that it can become a receptacle in which the divine can truly dwell.  

Yet do we really realise that when we sing the Sanctus week by week in the comfort and familiarity of our Anglican worship we are asking to be transformed in this way and pledging ourselves to share in the transformation of the world in which we dwell? To allow God’s grace to continue to overflow into us, as the water of that baptismal font overflows in the numinous beauty of Salisbury Cathedral? And if we did realise it, how many of us would be willing to continue to sing the song?

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