A Reflection on Isaiah 6:1-8 for Trinity Sunday B
In his book Dialogue and the Art of thinking Together, William Isaacs identifies three “languages” that human beings use to communicate. The first he calls the language of feeling or the language of the heart. Those who speak this language tend to see the world as a network of relationships and are concerned for taking care of people and how they feel. “Feelers” are attuned to the tone of communication as much as the content. The second language is that of action or of the body. Those who communicate this way are biased toward doing, implementation and taking responsibility. They tend to see emotions and analysis as diversions, and seek to get to work as quickly and effectively as possible. “Doers” are attuned to strategy and results. Finally, there are those who speak with the language of meaning or the language of the mind. Those who communicate with this language tend to focus on values, theories, analysis and the implications of situations and communications. “Thinkers” tend to look for patterns and meaning, focussing deeply on content and its implications. Of course every human being is a combination of body, mind and heart. We all communicate in the languages of feeling, action and meaning, although we each tend to prefer one or, maybe, two. And it is this threefold way of being human that makes the doctrine of the Trinity so satisfying and helpful.
As the grieving Isaiah entered the temple in the year that the good king Uzziah died, he received a vision of God that had a significant affect on him. According to this text, it was this dramatic encounter with God that transformed Isaiah into one of the great prophets of God’s people. What is remarkable about this narrative is the way God’s work in Isaiah, and, by extension God’s people, is revealed, and also the way Isaiah is called to be an instrument of God, carrying God’s word and activity out into the world. The first glimpse of God in Isaiah’s vision is of grandeur, glory and the worship of the seraphim – the shining ones. There can be no question that this vision is, first and foremost a communication to Isaiah, and through him to the nation, that opens them to some important insights about reality. God is revealed as high and lifted up, enthroned and filling the temple with God’s glory. The message is simple: kings may come and go, but God is the true monarch of Israel, and, as the seraphim sing, of the whole earth. With the death of the king, the future may be uncertain, but God remains sovereign and to be trusted and worshipped, for security is found only in the Divine Ruler of God’s people.
The seraphim themselves reveal some important truths that Isaiah and his people needed to grasp. They are mystical, mysterious creatures with six wings. Two cover their faces, reflecting the reality that their eyes and minds cannot gaze on God’s glory – they are incapable of fully apprehending or understanding the Divine Being, and so they can only offer themselves in devotion. Two wings cover their feet, the word for which, many scholars note, is a euphemism for the genitals. Thus, the organ which is used to express love, intimacy and communion – shared feeling – is also covered, reflecting the transcendence of God, and the inaccessibility of the Divine Lover, who nevertheless makes God’s Self known and invites people into union with God. Finally, two wings are used for flying, ensuring that these heavenly beings are ready for action, to do the bidding of their God at a moments notice. The worship of the seraphim is expressed in the language of the mind, of the heart and of the body. Along with the threefold “Holy”, which can be said to correspond to each of these languages, the worship of the seraphim called to every part of Isaiah, inviting him to join them in this worshipful encounter with God.
But, it doesn’t end there. Isaiah himself is caught up in God’s threefold action within himself, and then moved into a response which turns him into a threefold instrument of God’s Reign in his world. The first part of Isaiah that is touched is his heart. He feels both grief and shame at his own uncleanness, while simultaneously feeling his connection with the unclean community of which he is a part. It’s a moment of personal and corporate confession that reveals the depth of Isaiah’s heart, and which causes him to cry out in the language of feeling, “Woe is me!”
But, immediately the scene shifts. One of the seraphim, presumably at God’s command, takes a coal from the fire and begins to explain to Isaiah the meaning of what he is about to do. The problem has been analysed – the people are unclean and need to be forgiven and cleansed – and the solution has been found in God’s grace, represented by the altar, the place of sacrifice. Now, the seraph explains, the coal must be applied to the lips – which, as the communication centre of Isaiah’s being, represent his whole being – the mind which decides how he must live, the heart which draws him toward or away from God, and the body which puts his beliefs and feelings into action. Although all of Isaiah’s being is drawn into this moment, the action of God is directed through the language of meaning spoken by the seraph.
Finally, Isaiah hears God’s voice speaking, and it’s a word of action: “Who will go for us?” After the way his heart and mind have been touched, Isaiah cannot help but respond with his body in the famous words of offering: “Here I am. Send me.”
The God who has been revealed to Isaiah has come to him in three ways, three “languages”. His heart has been touched by God’s language of the heart. His mind has been challenged and comforted by God’s language of meaning, and his body has been called to action by God’s language of action. The threefold “holy” of the seraphim, then, is also a celebration of this Triune God who communicates God’s Self to Isaiah in the three basic languages that he needed to hear in order to be completely transformed.
The result of this encounter is dramatic. Isaiah becomes a prophet, sent out to be God’s communication in the same mould as the Divine Parent who has sent him. Although the verses that follow are not included in the reading for Trinity Sunday, they reveal how Isaiah’s ministry addressed the hearts (“harden the hearts of these people” – v.10), the minds (“Listen carefully but do not understand” – v9) and the bodies (the actions of “plugging ears” and “shutting eyes” as well as the reference to the people being “sent away” – v.12) of the people. Like Parent, like child.
The experience of Isaiah is pretty normative for God’s people. Transforming encounters with God are always available to us, and they will always open us to God’s threefold communication, God’s Triune Being. It is no surprise that God is revealed to us as the Great “Designer” and Creator of the cosmos, holding in God’s “mind” the truths, patterns and meaning of the whole created order (as God reveals to Job in their dramatic conversation). It is no surprise that God is revealed as the Spirit who connects the cosmos, bringing order and community out of chaos, drawing all people into diverse and welcoming community (as on the day of Pentecost). And it is no surprise that God is revealed in a body as the incarnate Jesus who communicates God’s love through the actions of dying and rising.
The miracle is that, as God encounters us in these ways, our entire beings are touched and transformed and we become true children of god, communicating God’s wisdom, love and justice through our own languages of mind, heart and body. So, as we worship this Sunday, may we not lose ourselves in the dry, intellectualism of doctrine. Rather, let us enter the temple as thinking, feeling, embodied beings ready to encounter a God who meets us in every part of ourselves, speaking the languages of meaning, feeling and action. And let us respond, as the seraph did, with our whole beings in the threefold song of “holy, holy, holy”.