Today’s liturgy offers us the vision of Isaiah in the Temple as an implied commentary on the Gospel scene in Peter’s boat.
The parallel is a bold one, because it suggests that the man Jesus is to be identified with the transcendent God of Israel. Such an idea would seem to be shocking indeed: yet this is our Catholic faith. As the Gospels portray Jesus, in all the details of his life and of his death, there is no doubt at all that he is completely, fully human. Clearly also he is special. He has wonderful powers; he speaks with authority; he conforms to prophecy. Yet to designate him simply as a special messenger of God, or even as the Messiah, is not enough. The only conclusion that makes sense of all that the witnesses report of him is that Jesus is not just human but also divine: He is the eternal Son of the eternal Father, the One God of Israel, who made all that exists. In Jesus this One eternal God became flesh, and dwelt among us. As the Creed we recite each Sunday puts it, Jesus is God from God; light from light; true God from true God (...) consubstantial with the Father.
The great characteristic of God, as glimpsed in Isaiah’s vision, is his holiness. Holy, holy, holy cry the Seraphim incessantly. In the presence of that supreme holiness, Isaiah is terrified. He knows well that he is only a frail mortal creature. He also knows that, according to the tradition of Israel, no one can see God and live (cf. Exodus 20:19; 33:20). But worse: he is a sinner; unworthy; compromised; contaminated. How then could he possibly survive a direct encounter with the God of glory? But Isaiah is not destroyed. On the contrary, he is first divinely cleansed, and then he is entrusted with a mission to preach; he is commissioned to be a prophet able to represent God among his people.
So in today’s Gospel, Simon Peter falls at the feet of Jesus, crying out Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinner. Peter senses in Jesus the very holiness of God, and he is afraid. But Jesus says to him: Do not be afraid. Jesus says that, not at all to deny his possession of divine holiness, nor to underplay Peter’s unworthiness. He says it because his whole mission, emphasised especially in St. Luke’s Gospel, is to reach out precisely to sinners; to bring mercy and forgiveness; to heal, and cleanse; to call precisely the unworthy into fellowship with himself. So when Peter identifies himself as a sinner, he thereby makes himself one for whom Jesus came to bring salvation. As with the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (18:9), Peter’s humbling of himself results in his being raised up, being justified before God, winning the approval and friendship of Jesus. So far from Jesus departing from Peter, he calls him to be henceforth his closest companion, and chief of all his Apostles.
Both Isaiah and St. Peter understood rightly their own nothingness, and radical insufficiency. But this insight, in the presence of infinite goodness, infinite mercy, infinite love, far from crushing us, must tend towards invincible confidence, and joy, and strength. How different it would be in the case of atheist. Such a person may well come to a profound insight into the reality of his own nothingness, but it will be in face of a universe that is essentially empty and meaningless. So that can lead only to despair.
How often, I wonder, do people nowadays experience something of this holy fear of the all-holy Lord? It seems to me that pretty well everything in our contemporary culture would discourage it. But as the wise man said, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (cf. Ps 111:10, Prov 1:7 etc.). If ever we are given to share some measure of that experience, I think we should count it a very great blessing of God. For some people even a fleeting moment like that can turn their whole life upside down, and set it off on a new direction. Often enough such an experience will come, as it were, out of the blue, at the most unexpected or inappropriate time. But when it happens, in many cases, the person concerned will feel he no longer has to look around for proofs of God’s existence, or of his holiness, or of his love. He knows.
In today’s Gospel story, Peter’s moment of sudden realisation is prompted by the remarkable catch of fish. He actually got far more fish than he bargained for, or could even handle. The fish exceeded all measure. They even threatened to tear the nets and sink both boats. Clearly all this was part of the sign. Jesus always gives beyond measure. He gives himself; he gives divine life; and with that, all other things we need. Sometimes indeed we feel he is giving too much, and more than we would quite have wanted. Sometimes the gift threatens to turn our life upside down, as it did Isaiah and Peter. Sometimes too the gift can be very hidden, coming to us under the veil of suffering, or loss. Yet if ever we think that God is somehow miserly with his gifts, or treats us somehow unfairly, or harshly, then we have failed to grasp the truth. No, no: on the contrary. Rather we should cry: Who am I, Lord, to be receiving so much? No: our whole life could never be long enough to give him sufficient thanks and praise.
In a few moments now we will be in a special way in the presence of perfect holiness. Through the Holy Eucharist, the holy sacrifice of Jesus’s saving death is made present for us, and Jesus himself becomes fully present for us under the forms of bread and wine.
So with the Centurion in the Gospel (Lk 7:1-10, cf. Mt 8) we cry out: Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.
But we don’t stop there. No: we approach Jesus with bold confidence. For we know well, and we are reminded in case we should ever forget, that we are called to the supper of the Lamb: and as such, we are Blessed indeed.