FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
Prayer of the Day: Most holy God, the earth is filled with your glory, and before you angels and saints stand in awe. Enlarge our vision to see your power at work in the world, and by your grace make us heralds of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
‘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 6:5.
“Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Luke 5:8
In our Northern European/American religious context, holiness is framed nearly exclusively in moral terms. To be holy, we are taught, is to adhere strictly to certain moral laws and precepts approved by God. Though holiness surely has a moral dimension, it encompasses far more than mere human behavior. Biblically speaking, holiness is the character of God. It is, in its essence, all that is true, beautiful and good.
Truth, it must be understood, is not to be equated with the modernist notion of that term. It does not consist exclusively of empirically demonstrated facts and rational deductions therefrom. To the contrary, as Soren Kierkegaard observed, “an objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness is the truth, the highest truth attainable for the individual.” Saint Augustine of Hippo asserts that “God is truth.” These seemingly contradictory assertions find reconciliation in the biblical claim that human beings were made in the image of God and in the miracle of the Incarnation wherein God becomes human. One cannot know oneself fully and completely apart from knowing the God in whose image one is made. Yet one can know God only as God reveals God’s self in the humanity of Jesus. Truth is relational, not transactional. To know Jesus, then, is to know the deepest truth: that God the Father loves God the Son; that this love, the glue that holds the Trinity together, emanates from the Father and the Son to create, redeem and reconcile the whole cosmos; that we become and know our true selves as we are incorporated into that redemptive Trinitarian love.
Beauty, also, must not be confused with any humanly created and shaped aesthetic. To the contrary, beauty is what creates and shapes our humanity. Holy beauty is the kind one experiences standing on the ocean shore or staring into the evening sky and recognizing how frail one is, how inconsequential are the “great historical moments” that amount to less than a blink of the eye in the great expanse of cosmic history. Holy beauty is taking your new born son or daughter into your arms for the first time and realizing the profound responsibility you have assumed for this new life so frail yet so full of potential. It is a terrifying beauty that evokes the response: “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” Psalm 8:4. Yet the God behind all of this raw and terrifying beauty is not only mindful of human beings, but
“looks far down
on the heavens and the earth[.]
He raises the poor from the dust,
and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes,
with the princes of his people.
He gives the barren woman a home,
making her the joyous mother of children.” Psalm 113:6-9.
This God who “looks far down” is nowhere better observed than in God’s “coming down” to “become flesh” and to “dwell among us.” And this “coming down” is revealed most fully on the cross. There God’s compassion for God’s finite creatures is manifest in all of its infinite, passionate beauty. At the foot of the cross we learn that, whether we like it or not, our little lives matter a great deal.
That brings us to holy goodness. Again, God’s goodness is not to be measured by any human standards of morality. The gospels make clear that God’s goodness consists in that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Matthew 5:45. God alone decides what is good and God defines goodness relationally, that is, in terms of mercy and compassion. In this respect, Jesus calls upon his disciples to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:48. Goodness, like truth and beauty, finally boils down to love. And love is not to be understood in the sense of personal affection or desire, but as the Triune love between Father and Son that breathes its creative, Pentecostal fire into the darkness thundering, “Let there be!” God, who is full and complete in God’s self, nevertheless makes room for the other to be. That is divine love, love that God would infuse into the whole cosmos so that all God’s creatures might find the courage and freedom to allow and assist one another to become all they are intended to be.
Encountering this holy God will scare the socks off anyone with a modicum of common sense. Being confronted with all of this blinding truth, splendorous beauty and pure goodness is a terrifying experience. One cannot help but recognize in the presence of holiness one’s own unholiness. It is terrifying to be stripped of the comfort afforded by all the lies I tell myself about myself. It is frightening to be confronted with the many ways in which I hurt the ones I love, the many opportunities for love I have squandered and the time I have wasted on envy, spite and self-pity. It is disheartening to discover in the presence of perfect beauty the pettiness, indifference and self-absorption that blinds me to such beauty most of the time. And, of course, it is deeply humbling to be compelled in the light of God’s loving kindness toward me to recognize and to own my meanness, cruelty, greed and bigotry-all the things that I so easily justify or overlook in myself while readily condemning them in the lives of others. I can well understand the fear and anguish expressed by the prophet Isaiah and the apostle Peter as they found themselves in the presence of God’s holiness.
Yet for all the terror and anxiety our encounter with holiness can induce, it is finally a life-giving force turning us from all that we have been toward all that we can be. Isaiah came away from his vision in the temple with lips cleansed and eager to speak God’s words to God’s people. Peter rose up from his supine posture before Jesus to follow his Lord in catching up the lost and forsaken of the world into the vast dragnet of God’s redemptive love. This Triune God we worship is not safe, tame or easy to live with. This God does not promise to make us rich, deliver us from suffering or bring us happiness and inner peace. But the God and Father of Jesus Christ does promise to make us holy-and that’s a damn sight better than any of those things.
Here is a poem by Luci Tapahonso presented to the graduates of the University of Arizona. It speaks eloquently of truth, beauty and goodness, the elements of holiness.
This morning we gather in gratitude for all aspects of sacredness:
the air, the warmth of fire, bodies of water, plants, the land,
and all animals and humankind.
We gather to honor our students who have achieved the extraordinary
accomplishment of earning doctoral or master’s degrees.
We gather to honor their parents, grandparents, children,
family members, and friends who have traveled with them
on their path to success. They have traveled far distances to be here
this morning: we honor their devotion.
May we remember that holiness exists in the ordinary elements of our lives.
We are grateful for a homeland that has always thrived
on a glorious array of people and their diverse cultures, histories,
and beliefs. We acknowledge the generosity of the Tohono O’odham
in granting this land on which we learn, teach, celebrate
accomplishments, and sometimes mourn losses.
May we always cherish our ancestors as we prepare for the days ahead.
May we remember that we exist because of their prayers and their faith.
We are blessed with distinct and melodious tongues.
Our languages are treasures of stories, songs, ceremonies, and memories.
May each of us remember to share our stories with one another,
because it is only through stories that we live full lives.
May the words we speak go forth as bright beads
of comfort, joy, humor, and inspiration.
We have faith that the graduates will inspire others
to explore and follow their interests.
Today we reflect a rainbow of creation:
Some of us came from the east, where bright crystals of creativity reside.
They are the white streaks of early morning light when all is born again.
We understand that, in Tucson, the Rincon Mountains are our inspiration
for beginning each day. The Rincons are everlasting and always present.
Those who came from the south embody the strength of the blue
mountains that encircle us. The Santa Ritas instill in us
the vigorous spirit of youthful learning.
Others came from the west; they are imbued with the quiet, yellow glow of dusk.
They help us achieve our goals. Here in the middle of the valley, the ts’aa’,
the basket of life, the Tucson Mountains teach us to value our families.
The ones from the north bring the deep, restorative powers of night’s darkness;
their presence renews us. The Santa Catalina Mountains teach us that,
though the past may be fraught with sorrow, it was strengthened
by the prayers of our forebearers.
We witnessed the recent fires the mountains suffered,
and in their recovery we see ourselves on our own journeys.
We understand that we are surrounded by mountains, dziił,
and thus that we are made of strength, dziił, nihí níhídziił.
We are strong ourselves. We are surrounded by mountains
that help us negotiate our daily lives.
May we always recognize the multitude of gifts that surround us.
May our homes, schools, and communities be filled with the wisdom
and optimism that reflect a generous spirit.
We are grateful for all blessings, seen and unseen.
May we fulfill the lives envisioned for us at our birth. May we realize
that our actions affect all people and the earth. May we live in the way
of beauty and help others in need. May we always remember that
we were created as people who believe in one another. We are grateful,
Holy Ones, for the graduates, as they will strengthen our future.
All is beautiful again.
Source: A Radiant Curve (c. 2008 by Luci Tapahonso, pub. by University of Arizona Press). Luci Tapahonso (b. 1953) is a Navajo poet and a lecturer in Native American Studies. She is also the author of three children’s books and six books of poetry. Tapahonso was born on the Navajo reservation in Shiprock, New Mexico and raised in the traditional ways of her tribe along with 11 siblings. English was not spoken in the family home. Consequently, Tapahonso learned it as a second language after her native Navajo. She attended the University of New Mexico with the goal of pursuing a career in journalism. She changed her major to creative writing in her sophomore year, however, and graduated with a degree in that discipline. Thereafter, she earned her masters and held teaching positions at the University of Mexico, University of Kansas and the University of Arizona where she is currently a professor of English Literature and Language. Tapahonso was chosen as the first poet laureate of the Navajo Nation. You can learn more about Luci Tapahonso and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.