God’s Kiss is Fire
We began church this morning in our opening hymn with three simple words: Holy, holy, holy.
We sang “Holy” three times for two reasons.
First, because the holiness of God is so great that we need to say it three times to express it.
And second, because we are calling on the three persons of the Trinity to be in our midst: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Today is Trinity Sunday, the day we reflect on the multiplication of holiness that is our Triune God.
Holy, holy, holy. These are the words that begin the Sanctus, a Latin word which means Holy and is the name of the part of the service that comes right at the beginning of the Holy Eucharist.
First comes the Sursum Corda, the Latin words for “Lift up your heart.”
Each week as your priests, Father Davies and I call on you to lift up your hearts in praise to God, and you tell us that it is a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere.
Our celebration of Holy Eucharist begins with a dialogue about the goodness of God.
This is not a coincidence.
The Holy Eucharist can never be celebrated by one person alone.
It is a conversation, a community speaking to itself and to God and to the world about holy things.
That is a direct reflection of the nature of God.
God is one, but God is three. God exists in community.
God exists in conversation, Father, Son and Holy Spirit in constant dialogue and communication, and we model that ourselves in the Sursum Corda.
Right after our dialogue our voices merge into one voice to proclaim God’s holiness in the Sanctus.
We use many different Eucharistic prayers at St. Francis, the four in the main Book of Common Prayer, and others from supplementary Episcopal resources.
And in each of these prayers the words we use change, telling the same story but in different ways.
But the Sanctus remains constant, a never changing north star of our worship.
Every time we break bread together, these words remain the same because they speak the truth so clearly:
Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.
The Sanctus is ancient.
It comes from Isaiah 6, the lesson we read today.
The context of the original Sanctus is important because it informs the experience we are meant to have as we sing it each week.
When we begin the Sanctus, be it spoken or sung, these four walls and these pews and windows and floors fade away.
We are no longer in this world.
Everything familiar is gone and we are transported somewhere at once so magnificent and so beautiful that it is a wonder our voices don’t fade away altogether.
When we sing the Sanctus, we enter the throne room of God.
We are standing with Isaiah, gazing in wonder at the seraphim and cherubim, staring up at the throne and awed by God’s glory.
That is why we as the priests bow down as soon as we begin the Sanctus.
It is a symbol and a recognition of the fact that we have entered the presence of the Almighty, that we are standing in the throne room.
It is our honor as the priests to make an outward physical gesture on behalf of us as a people, but it is a reflection that each one of us is bending the knee of our hearts before God’s throne.
There will be moments in the Eucharist later, at table with Jesus, that are intimate and gentle and tender.
But this moment, the Sanctus, is about seeing the grandeur and power of God.
It is a moment of seeing the grandeur and power of God and yet knowing that we stand in that awesome presence without fear.
As our opening hymn this morning said, “Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty.”
The Trinity is a paradoxical doctrine. God is three and God is one.
In the normal calculus of human mathematics, that is not possible.
But if God is three and God is one simultaneously, God can surely be merciful and mighty at the same time, large enough to create and sustain the universe, while intimate enough to number the hairs on our heads.
Thinking about paradoxes is hard work, and Isaiah articulates one in a rather panicked voice while standing in the throne room in our lesson today.
“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
Isaiah considers it an impossibility that he, a sinner among a community of sinners, can be judged worthy to see God face to face.
But then a seraph flies to him and touches his mouth with a glowing coal from the altar.
What a moment!
And it lifts our experience each week with the Sanctus to a whole new level.
When Isaiah stands face to face with God and wants to be made worthy, his mouth is touched with a glowing coal from the altar.
He is made holy by a kiss of fire from God.
That is why I kiss the altar before I begin the Eucharist.
I am unworthy to celebrate this Holy Sacrament and I need purification.
While we’re in the throne room, this altar is on fire, glowing red hot with the flame of the Holy Spirit, and I touch my lips to it so that I may be purified, just like Isaiah.
Your lips are kissed with fire too as you speak and sing the holy words with the angels and archangels and every generation in the great cloud of witnesses.
I kiss the altar one more time in the service, and that is at the very end.
That moment is also because of this passage in Isaiah.
The service is over, and we are ready to leave the throne room.
What happens to Isaiah as he’s leaving the throne room?
He is commissioned and sent out to do God’s work back in the world.
“Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!””
Isaiah’s mouth is touched with fire not just to purify him and allow him to be in the throne room, but also to prepare him to go back out and fulfill his mission.
And so I kiss the altar again as the last thing I do before we as a people leave the throne room and go out to the work God has given us to do.
And all of our mouths are kissed with fire in that moment, a fire that descends down into our hearts and fuels our work out in the world for another week.
Notice that the Lord says, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Here Isaiah has God referring to Godself as both “I” and “us.”
This is another witness to the holy paradox of the Trinity, three and yet one.
Almost every time I teach a catechumenate class for confirmands, one of them will say to me, “So. God is three, and God is one. I don’t get it.”
I always have to tell them, “Well, neither do I.”
That’s the nature of a holy paradox, and they abound within our faith, all the way down to the fact that Jesus was dead and yet became alive again.
One of the constants of entering the presence of God is encounter with mystery, a mystery that drives our hunger to know more about God.
I think sometimes our modern enlightenment minds, formed by the scientific paradigm and even more by the information overload of the internet age, expect to be able to treat God like Google.
Search term: Trinity, and…Enter. Explanations galore!
Thank you, God, for spitting out the answer.
But God doesn’t work that way.
Dwelling within mystery is as vital to our spiritual health as oxygen is to our physical health.
We need the daily reminder that there are things beyond our understanding, things much bigger than we are, things we will never understand.
It helps us regain our humility.
And it preserves the sense of adventure that the spiritual life should have. There is always something new to discover about God just around the corner.
Isaiah discovered that as soon as he found himself abruptly and unexpectedly in the throne room of God.
That could happen to us at any time. Even right here, right now, at this altar.
How is it possible that God is three and God is one?
I answer that question the same way I answer many other questions that have come to me in this life of faith.
I look out across the gathering of our community on Sunday mornings, and think, how is it possible that we are blessed with such goodness?
I look at the rays of sun coming through the trees and think, how is it possible that God’s glory is shining down upon me every day?
I don’t know how any of it is possible, but my God, it is beautiful.
And that beauty sustains me like food and water and oxygen.
The beauty of holiness is fundamental to the survival of the human soul.
Is there someone in your life who is starving for the want of it?
Perhaps this week you can offer a glimpse of the times when you find yourself on holy ground to someone who desperately needs to know that there is good news in the world.
If you find yourself searching for words, remember that the saints and angels and archangels had need of only one word, one word that was three: “Holy, holy, holy.”
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