EUCHARIST: Partaking of the Divine Coal

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) – February 6, 2022

St. Paul – Lyons, KS

Isaiah 6:1-2a, 3-8; Psalm 138:1-5, 7-8; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11

Back to the Perspective Sculpture: A Paradigm Shift

As some of you probably know, Bishop Kemme has declared a Year of the Eucharist for all of us here in the Diocese of Wichita. And there are many reasons for this. But I think one of them is because for many of us, we have lost sight of what the Eucharist is, what we’re doing here at Mass, what it means to “come to church.” For instance, in the early 1960s, 75% of Catholics attended Mass regularly. Today, it is only around 25% of Catholics that attend regularly. Here in the Diocese of Wichita we’re way above average! 50% of Catholics attend Mass regularly…which means only half of our parish doesn’t come to Mass on Sunday. “Only half” of our parish. Half of our parish, half of the Catholics in town stay away from the Eucharist on a regular or permanent basis.

And as I listen to all of the reasons why people stay away, I keep coming back to St. Paul. Last week I was using the example of a perspective sculpture to talk about and illustrate the conversion of St. Paul. Again, a perspective sculpture is where you have all of these random looking pieces set up, but when you go to just the right angle you can see the picture or design or whatever. And the reason I used that as an example is because Paul had all of the pieces—he knew the scriptures, he knew the history, he knew the promises, he heard the preaching of the apostles…but he didn’t “see” it. He saw all the pieces, but there was something crucial missing, something that would put him in the perfect position to see. And that “something” was a real encounter with the risen Jesus. When Paul encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus, everything changed! People have the pieces, they know all the “Catholic stuff”—but all of these pieces look like a big blob of nothing. Something is missing. Even us, when we look at all of the pieces and all of the things we do as Catholics, I know that sometimes we think, “What in the world do we do that for?

As we begin this year of the Eucharist, what we’re being invited to do is to “re-align” ourselves with all of the pieces so that we can see what is truly going on. And once we see, we can truly begin to believe, adore, celebrate and live this great Mystery. 

Isaiah’s Experience: The Divine Coal

And so I think it’s very appropriate that as we begin focusing on the Eucharist we have this reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah. When the Fathers of the Church—some of the earliest Christian leaders and teachers—looked to the Old Testament to help them understand what the Eucharist is, they turned to this passage from Isaiah.

Isaiah has this crazy vision. And in his vision, he is caught up into the heavenly temple, the throne room of God himself—he’s right in God’s presence—and he’s totally terrified. The angels, the cherubim and seraphim, are crying out, “Holy, holy, holy!” Isaiah is terrified. He knows how things work: he’s not supposed to be there, he’s worried about being destroyed. He knows he’s not worthy to be in God’s presence, “I am doomed! I am a man of unclean lips!”

And then one of the seraphim uses tongs to take a burning coal from the altar (the altar, the place where sacrifice is made)—he takes this coal and starts flying toward Isaiah. And Isaiah is thinking, “This is the end. I’m dead! I’m doomed!” And the seraphim touches the lips of Isaiah, sears his lips…and then says the strangest thing: “ Your guilt is taken away, your sin atoned for.” What? Isaiah should be killed (that’s the point), destroyed…but instead he is transformed! In the presence of God Almighty, in the presence of the Holy and terrifying presence of God, Isaiah is not destroyed or killed—he is transformed! And being transformed, Isaiah is then sent out!

What does this have to do with the Eucharist? Well, this is precisely one of the ways that the Fathers of the Church described what is going on at the Mass. At Mass, we are caught up into the throne room of God himself! (Have you noticed that almost all of the prayers at Mass are directed to God the Father, through Christ Our Lord? We aren’t just saying prayers, everything is directed to the Father. We are standing in the throne room of God!) Also, here on the altar isn’t just a “reenactment” of the Last Supper; no, the Sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, the Paschal Mystery is made present. Here on the altar is the crucified Jesus, Jesus’ sacrifice, Jesus giving his body and shedding his blood. And from this altar of sacrifice, we are given the Divine Coal.

The Objection, and What We Learn From Peter

What’s the objection? “Alright, Father, that’s nice! But come on, look around you. It’s just us. It’s just a normal Sunday morning thing.” Yes! Exactly. The objection is that nothing looks special. It all seems so ordinary. But this is precisely how Jesus chooses to operate.

Look at our Gospel today. Jesus arrives at the Sea of Galilee, and people gather in order to listen to the word of God, and then Jesus teaches. After teaching, he has Peter, James and John put out their nets—and an overabundance of fish, a miraculous amount of food is provided. How much? So much that the boats were in danger of sinking…of being destroyed. And at that, Peter falls on his knees in front of Jesus and says, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” But instead of being destroyed, Jesus transforms him!  “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” Jesus raises Peter up and transforms him into his prophet, his missionary.

Here in this Gospel, Peter has en encounter with Jesus—with God himself—but everything is veiled, is hidden in ordinary signs! It’s just a normal day at work. It’s just a normal preacher coming along to teach. It’s just a normal thing putting your nets in the water. But hidden in the ordinary is something extraordinary!

In this story, people gather. What’s the first thing we do at Mass? Gather. Then they listen to the word of God. What do we do? Listen to the word of God. Then Jesus teaches. Then the priest gives the homily. After that, a miraculous food is provided, so much in fact that it threatens to destroy. This bread miraculously becomes more than just bread, a divine coal, Jesus himself. But before he eats this food, Peter falls down and declares his sinfulness and unworthiness. Before we consume the Eucharist, we fall on our knees once again: “Lord, I am not worthy.” But Peter’s encounter with Jesus transforms him; and he is commissioned as a “fisher of men.” After our encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist, the divine presence in the coal, we are transformed; and we are commissioned, sent out: “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord.”

In this encounter, Peter recognizes that there is an incredible mystery hidden beneath the ordinariness of the day. Sure, Isaiah was caught up in a vision, he saw thrones and angels—but Peter had the same experience, his experience was simply veiled in the ordinary.

Mass: Throne Room & Calvary

Yes, it looks like what we’re doing here is ordinary: we’ve been coming to Mass for years, all of this is normal for us, we’re used to it. But veiled beneath the ordinary, hidden beneath these simple signs and actions is an incredible mystery.

St. John of Damascus—one of the early Church Fathers—described receiving communion as coming in contact with the coal from the altar in Isaiah’s vision. He says:

With burning desire let us cross our hands one upon the other and receive into them the body of the crucified one, and after touching it with our eyes, our lips, and our forehead, let us partake of the divine coal; thus, the fire of our love will be ignited by the divine coal and burn up our sins and illumine our hearts; and through participation in the divine fire we shall catch on fire and be deified.

St. John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith 4.13

St. John of Damascus understood the Eucharist, receiving the Eucharist, to be like the divine coal from Isaiah’s vision—a coal taken from the altar of sacrifice. This divine burning coal, this Eucharist, ignites our love, burns up our sins, illumines our heart. And by consuming this divine fire, we catch on fire, and are deified. This is a much different understanding of the Mass! Not our normal approach to Mass. Who would stay away from an experience like this?

As we embark on this year of the Eucharist it is my hope that we will begin to see all of these pieces of the Mass and the Eucharist in an entirely new way.

I hope and pray that during this year, many of our friends and family who have fallen away from the practice of the Faith, who no longer come to the Mass will once again be drawn back.

But I pray that it begins with us, all of us gathered here. The Lord commissions us to go forth. Us who partake of this divine coal, who encounter Jesus Christ in this most powerful way—we are the ones the Lord sends, we are the “fishers of men.” And if you feel totally under-qualified to be sent out, good; you’re in good company. It is the Lord who will transform you for this mission.

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