Friday, August 20, 2010

The Tongs

When Jesus’ disciples asked him why he spoke in parables, Jesus did not say so that it would be easy for simple people to understand Him.  Actually, Jesus said the opposite.  He said, “so that in seeing they may not perceive and in hearing they may not understand.”
No wonder I don’t get it.  Jesus intentionally spoke so that he would not be easily understood.  
Perceiving and understanding is not a mere matter of study, that’s just the seeing and hearing part.  It is not a matter of mastering words and ideas outside myself.  Rather, perceiving and understanding requires revelation, not the revelation of what Jesus meant (as though that could be objectified), but a revelation of ourselves, a revelation of what inside us corresponds to what Jesus said, a revelation of our hearts.  
Jesus is quoting Isaiah, the part where God calls Isaiah to his prophetic ministry.  The passage is found in Isaiah chapter six, and it is one of the very few direct glimpses into heaven that are recorded in the Bible.  In this chapter we learn about the seraphim and the thrice holy prayer (trisagion in Greek): “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of Your glory.”  Here in the presence of the holy God Isaiah is immediately aware of his not-holiness, his uncleanness, particularly his unclean lips.  Then one of the seraphs using a pair of tongs takes a live coal from the altar and touches his mouth with it and says, “Behold, this has touched your lips. Your lawlessness is taken away, and your sins are cleansed.”
Now God calls Isaiah to “go and tell this people, ‘You shall hear indeed, but not understand: and you shall see indeed, but not perceive.’ For the heart of this people has become insensitive….”  
It’s a matter of the heart.  Understanding Jesus' parables is a matter of the heart.  An insensitive heart cannot perceive or understand.

The notes in the Orthodox Study Bible point out that many of the words from this passage in Isaiah are quoted in the Orthodox Divine Liturgy.  The notes mention that the touching of Isaiah’s lips with the coal from the altar is understood in the Church to be a reference to receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion (which takes away our lawless deeds and cleanses our sins).  However, I would like to draw another connection.
In a few of the hymns of devotion to Mary the Theotokos, she is referred to as the “tongs” that carried the live coal from the heavenly altar to touch the lips of men and women in this world.  When it comes to matters of my insensitive heart, I have found that I often need to appeal to the Mother of God for help, for intercession.  Her intercessions are like tongs that carry the purifying and clarifying fire of God from the heavenly altar to touch my lips--and if this is not mixing metaphors too severely--the lips of my heart.  Didn’t Jesus say,“Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks”?
When I draw a blank in my spiritual life, when, as they say, the heavens are brass, when  I am confused or just so frustrated that I can not see straight, that’s when I most urgently call on the Mother of God.  Somehow Her intercession brings to my heart the cleansing fire of Divinity.  Somehow Her intercession brings to me the Grace of God that I in my sin, pain and the confusion of my insensitive heart cannot reach out and receive myself.  
Perhaps someone reading this today is confused, frustrated or spiritually shut down.  I urge you to pray to Mary, the Mother of God, that she would carry some of the Grace of God that she holds (the Bible does, after all, say that She is “full of Grace”) and touch the lips of your heart.


Anonymous said...

As an Orthodox baby (and convert from Protestantism) still I have a hard time asking Her intercession but I really liked your analogy. Father, did you have a hard time when you first came to Orthodoxy to pray to the Theotokos? How did you overcome it?

Fr. Michael said...

Dear Anonymous,
I'm happy to hear that you liked the analogy. The various akathist prayers to the Mother of God are full of Old Testament symbols that, once you see it, obviously point to the Mother of God. In my Sunday blog I talk about my getting to know Mary.