‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory ‘ Isaiah 6:3
Back in the 1960s, a tape recording was made of children from Dublin’s north inner city retelling Bible stories in their own way. A decade ago, the stories were put into a cartoon animation called ‘Give up yer aul sins’. One of the lines that sticks in the memory is a child recalling John the Baptist sending his disciples to question Jesus. The child’s version of the question they asked is, ‘Are you really God, or are you a shocking holy saint?’
The childhood innocence of the story telling has a beauty about it and it also manages to express some profound truths. ‘Are you a shocking holy saint?’ The word ‘shocking’ and the word ‘holy’are not often words that you find used in conjunction with each other, but perhaps they should be.
The children would have understood the shock felt by Isaiah when he met the holiness of God, they would have understood Isaiah saying, ‘woe is me’.
Another story of childhood innocence was told by an old clergyman back in the early 1980s, he was in the final weeks of the forty five years of his parish ministry and was trying to capture the things that mattered to him. He preached one Sunday about the ‘beauty of holiness’ and about a little girl going to a church on the North Antrim coast, where he had been rector, during her summer holidays. It was a traditional, rural congregation in the 1940s and every woman wore a hat. The little girl came into the church and looked around and then ran from the church, back to where her family were staying, gathered her mother’s sun hat and reappeared at the church door, her face almost entire obscured by this huge hat. The canon believed that holiness was expressed in such innocence and purity of heart.
The little girl would have understood Isaiah saying, ‘woe is me’, her search for a hat is her response to a sense of the holiness of God.
When we look at Scripture, holiness is something that is shocking; holiness is something that has a profound effect upon people who encounter it. Look at Isaiah in the Temple; look at Moses’ encounter with God in the desert; look at the stories of Jesus being transfigured; look at the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost—these are shocking holy moments; these are encounters with holiness that are so profound that they change the people who are there.
Do we ever have a sense of God being present with us? A sense of something beyond words; a sense of something that remains with us for years to come.
Isaiah met with God in the Temple, but we don’t have to be a religious place: Moses was in the desert; Peter, James and John were on the mountainside. God can be met in the most unlikely of places
Visiting a village in the southern Philippines in 2001 with a Presbyterian colleague, we were asked to celebrate Mass in a little community hall built from concrete blocks with a corrugated iron roof.
We explained that this was not possible; we were not Roman Catholic clergy and would not wish to mislead people. Our interpreter explained to the people and turned to us, ‘nevertheless’, he said, ‘we would like to have a Holy Communion service’.There was only a Mass in the village once every three or four months and many of the people could not afford to travel elsewhere.
We agreed and said we would need half an hour to prepare something. We wrote the congregational responses from the Church of Ireland Prayer Book on large sheets of paper and stuck them to the wall. We found a Bible in the local language, for people to read the Epistle and the Gospel. We said the Creed in our own languages and people stood up to say their own prayers at the time of the intercessions.
My colleague read verses from the 11th chapter of Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians as the Communion prayer.
The altar was an old table someone had brought from somewhere. A candle had been found and stuck in a glass. The bread was three little sweetbreads that someone had kept for a special occasion; the wine was rum, made from sugar cane that grew around the village, shared around in a china cup. Hymns the whole congregation knew were sung in the local language. There were about forty of us gathered under the light of a single unshaded light bulb. The hall was open on two sides – the wall rising to no more than three feet and mystified bypassers looked in at us.
To have looked at the scene through the eyes of everyday life would have been to have seen a gathering of poor people – some without shoes – and two Europeans – in a building that wasn’t much better than a farm shed.
Yet there was there a sense that this was something special, that this was a place of holiness, that we were the least worthy of the people there.
The experience was a lesson that a place of holiness is the place where one meets with God. It might be church, but it might just as easily be our home or our farm or our workplace or somewhere altogether unlikely. It is not the ‘where’ that matters, it is the ‘why’ and the ‘what”. Why has God chosen to meet with us and what are we going to do in response to our encounter with holiness?
‘Woe is me’, says Isaiah, but he is so shocked by the holiness, so changed by the moment that he says, ‘Here am I; send me!’
Meeting with God meets having such a sense of woe and such a sense of willingness. This is the holiness God desires in us.