Circular Letter: Fall 2020
Angelic Help in unlocking the Mystery of the Holy of Holies
We are getting close to the 29th of September, the feast of the three Archangels, Saints Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. The opening prayer for this Mass, however, reveals that the Church actually implores the help of all the holy angels on this day: “O God… graciously grant that our life on earth may be defended by those who watch over us as they minister perpetually to You in heaven.” Evidently, their heavenly ministry is closely linked to their ministry on earth. Today, we want to ponder this collaboration of the Seraphim and the Cherubim alongside the Archangels in the divine economy. In this endeavor we propose to unlock certain aspects of the Sacred Books of the Old Covenant. In particular, we want to reflect on the mystery of the Temple.
The “Holy of Holies” was the inner sanctum of the ancient Jewish Temple, the place where the “Most High” dwelt. It was central to the Jewish sacrificial system and therefore to the Mosaic Covenant. Since ancient Hebrew did not have superlatives, the sacred authors did not refer to this place as The “Most Holy Place,” but used the more circumlocutive term, the “Holy of Holies”. The very richness of this term, “Holy of Holies,” is precisely what is needed to lead us into the depths of the reality it indicates.
Selected texts from the books of Isaiah, Daniel and Ezekiel have given us some profound insights into the role the celestial spirits have in the divine plan of salvation.
The Seraphim’s Contribution
Let us start with the Prophet Isaiah. In chapter 6, Isaiah has an incredible vision of Seraphim worshipping God in the heavenly temple. The text reads:
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the Seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Is 6:1-3)
Before we delve into what the text reveals to us about the Temple, we want to explore what the Seraphim can teach us about proper demeanor before God.
The first thing we can learn from the Seraphim is humility and reverence. The fact that the Seraphim had two of their wings covering their faces signifies that, even though they are in the presence of God, it is, nonetheless, necessary to shield their eyes while gazing upon the Lord. The symbolism of this is meant to teach us, that if the mighty Seraphim have such an immense reverence for God, then should we not also, cultivate a habitual attitude of reverence for our Incarnate Lord Jesus? Yes, it’s true that He is our brother and our friend. We should be comfortable in our mutual, loving relationship with Him, but this needs to be held in tension with the fact that He’s God! And as God, we should have the upmost reverence towards Him.
Secondly, the covering of their feet with another set of wings tells us also something about humility. Our feet are what always have contact with the ground. Accordingly, they become dirty. It’s symbolic imagery about our need for purification. The foot washing in the Gospel is an allusion to our need of being cleansed from sin. If the Seraphim, who are sinless, cover their feet before the Lord, how much humbler should we be in recognizing ourselves as sinners before our Lord and Savior.
With regard to the mystery of the Temple, Isaiah 6:1 speaks of a vision of the Lord sitting upon a throne and his train filling the Temple. This fuses together two powerful attributes. The Temple of the Lord and the palace of the Lord are one and the same thing. The place where a throne is found is in a palace and the text tells us explicitly that we are in the Temple. Any Jew would have recognized that Isaiah was granted a vision into the heavenly Holy of Holies, because it’s God’s dwelling. What this tells us, is that the heavenly Holy of Holies is at one and the same time a place of worship on the one hand, and a place of law, or justice on the other. It means that worship and justice are two key attributes of the Holy of Holies.
Another illuminating point about Isaiah’s vision is the burning coal. The text reads:
Then flew one of the Seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.” (Is 6:6-7)
The reason the Seraphim did this was because Isaiah was terrified. He had seen the Lord of hosts, but was a man of unclean lips; he was a sinner.
Isaiah was in a condition of uncleanliness. In the Old Testament biblical tradition, there were three states: unclean or profane; clean or purified; and holy. If a person was unclean, it wasn’t possible for him to be sanctified, or made holy; he had to be purified first. Then, once he was purified, he could be sanctified. The coal that the Seraphim uses to touch Isaiah’s lips purifies him, but it doesn’t make him holy. However, since Isaiah is purified, he is now in a state where he can be sanctified.
A person becomes holy when they are anointed, blessed, or sanctified through some other means akin to an anointing. To be holy means to receive the divine presence, that is, to participate in the holiness of God and also be able to communicate holiness to others. Isaiah is made holy when he is commissioned by God, “and I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘here am I! Send me'” (Isaiah 6:8). Isaiah is made holy to be a prophet and prophesy about the coming of the Messiah.
In the Old Covenant, there were three offices for which anointing was used in order to make one holy. They were the offices of priest, prophet and king. One who was made holy by anointing was empowered to communicate the divine presence to others. The quintessential example of this happening in the Old Covenant was with the anointing of King David. In the first book of Samuel we read how the Holy Spirit rushed upon him after he was anointed. David received the presence of God. He participated in God’s holiness and was empowered to communicate that holiness to his people.
As stated above, Isaiah’s mission is to prophesy about the coming of God’s Messiah. We can deduce that Isaiah is talking about the Messiah, because Messiah means anointed. This is demonstrated in chapter 9 of Isaiah where he speaks of the coming of the Son of David. The Son of David will be the king of Israel and the kings of Israel were always anointed. And, as stated above, when one is anointed one is made holy; so the anointed one, about whom Isaiah is prophesying is also called God’s holy one. Therefore, the Messiah (or anointed one) was also referred to as the “Holy One of God”.
Isaiah’s mission to prophesy about the coming of God’s Holy One is important. God’s Messiah or Holy One is a key concept to help us unlock further the mystery of the Temple.
Who is this “Holy One”? And what distinguishes him from other holy ones? You see, Isaiah was a holy one; King David was a holy one, as were other heroes of the Old Covenant. In Isaiah 9:6 we have a profound answer! Isaiah calls him Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. These titles are not merely names for this anointed one, they are identifying Who He is and what He is.
The great counselor of Israel’s past was King Solomon. Solomon was the wise counselor or advocate as is well known by his being able to determine which harlot was the true mother of the child in 1 Kings 3:16-28. So this “Holy One” is a new Solomon. But, He also has the epithets of Mighty God and Everlasting Father! So this Holy One is also divine. And lastly He is called Prince of Peace. This title too, is Solomonic, for Solomon’s name meant peace. His name in Hebrew was Shalomon. And as we all know, shalom means peace in Hebrew. So this “Holy One” is the son of David and He’s also divine! This means He is not only God’s “Holy One”, but He is God’s “Most Holy One”.
St. Gabriel’s Contribution
As we have learned above, they would have referred to this “Most Holy” as the “Holy of Holies”. And amazingly enough, the prophet Daniel refers to the anointing of a Holy of Holies in Daniel 9:24-26. To paraphrase, the Archangel Gabriel explains to him that: Seventy weeks of years will pass until a Holy of Holies is anointed; and cut off. Well, the term Holy of Holies, for an ancient Israelite, would have referred to the Holy of Holies in the Temple. It is also true, however, that the ancient Israelites were very familiar with a person who was the embodiment of the Holy of Holies of the Temple. That person was the High Priest! The vestments that the High Priest wore on the “Day of Atonement” were designed with the same ornamentation that was on the veil that covered the Holy of Holies in the temple. And so, the Israelites saw in the High Priest, the embodiment of the Holy of Holies of the Temple.
So when the Archangel Gabriel speaks of the anointing of a Holy of Holies that would be cut off, it could refer to either a man, or the Temple, or both. The fact that the High Priest was understood as the embodiment of the Holy of Holies sheds light on the mysterious words of Jesus in John 2:19. There, our Lord says, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” In John 2:21 the evangelist adds, “But He spoke of the temple of His body.” In John 19 we read the account of how this “Holy of Holies” was “cut off” in the account of the crucifixion.
But Jesus wasn’t the only Holy of Holies cut off at that hour. Matthew tells us in 27:51 that when Jesus yielded up His Spirit, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” With the curtain being torn in two, the Holy of Holies was exposed, thus profaning the temple and in effect destroying it from a theological standpoint of being a worthy place of sacrifice. From that point on, the Holy of Holies of the temple was no longer the place where the presence of God dwelled! It was cut off. Thus, the sacrificial system of the Old Covenant ceased from the standpoint of having any value in the eyes of God. This sacrificial system, being the essence of the Old Covenant embodied in the Temple, being cut off, also signifies that the Old Covenant was thus fulfilled in Jesus’ paschal mystery.
Thus, St. Gabriel has led us to the great transition from understanding the “Holy of Holies” as a dwelling place of God made of stone to being a dwelling place of God not made by hands but referring to “the temple of His body”. Jesus’ body is the true Holy of Holies. But another great mystery is revealed at Jesus’ crucifixion. John 19:34 reads: “But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.”
To help us understand the significance of this we need to recall the threefold meaning of the temple, which gradually developed in Old Covenant tradition. A temple, of course, is a temple, first of all, because it is the place where God dwells. Both Jewish tradition and the Old Covenant Scriptures enabled them to understand that the Temple was a micro cosmos and the world was a macro temple. Eden is shown to be the primordial sanctuary of God, the primordial Holy of Holies, the place where God dwelled with man and thus we understand the world as being a macro temple. The Solomonic Temple was understood as being the place where the presence of God was and thus a small Eden and thus a micro cosmos. The High Priest being the embodiment of the Holy of Holies, as mentioned above, caps off our threefold understanding of the temple being understood: 1) as man, 2) as the temple of stone, and 3) as the world. In short, all are united in a unity inasmuch as each is the ‘place’ where God dwells.
Further, out of Eden, the primordial Holy of Holies, flowed the river of life, the Gihon. It branched out into four other rivers thus vivifying the entire planet with life giving water flowing from the primordial Holy of Holies, Eden. In short, there was living water flowing from the Temple of Eden.
What is more, during Passover, according to ancient Jewish tradition, so many lambs were sacrificed and then the blood was taken and poured out onto the altar, that it was necessary to have an elaborate drainage system going from the altar to the outside through the side of the temple. They would use large amounts of water to wash the blood away and so what one would see flowing out from the side of the Temple during Passover was a river of blood and water.
So we see water flowing from Eden; we see water and blood flowing from the side of the Jewish Temple and we see water and blood flowing from the side of Christ. The water and blood flowing from the Jewish Temple was merely a typological symbol of the living waters that would flow from the eschatological temple prophesied by the prophets. That eschatological temple we now understand to be the Body of Christ and the river of living water is identified with the Holy Spirit as we see in John 7:39.
The Church teaches us that the water and blood flowing from the side of Christ represent the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist. Through Baptism we are made part of the Mystical Body of Christ. We are made part of the Temple. So the significance of John 19:34, for our purposes here, is that we are made part of the temple!
But what part of the temple are we talking about? Revelation 21 gives us the answer. There St. John tells us that the New Jerusalem, the holy city is coming down out of heaven as a bride adorned for her husband. Later, the angel tells him to measure the holy city and her measurements are that of a perfect cube. The only cubed shape structure that existed with any theological significance for ancient Jews was the Holy of Holies of the Temple. Well, we are made part of the Temple. So we participate in the life of Christ as the Holy of Holies in communion with Him.
This takes us back to the vision of the prophet Ezekiel. In Ezekiel chapter 1, he sees a vision of four Cherubim.
As I looked, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, and a great cloud, with brightness round about it… And from the midst of it came the likeness of four living creatures… As for the likeness of their faces, each had the face of a man in front; the four had the face of a lion on the right side, the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and the four had the face of an eagle at the back. (Ez 1:4-5;10)
Here is where knowledge of the Old Covenant Temple helps us to understand what the Cherubim are showing to Ezekiel.
What is the significance of the four Cherubim? There was only one place where there were four Cherubim. In the Temple that Solomon built, Solomon ordered two Cherubim to be placed in the Holy of Holies with their wings extended so that they would cover the Ark of the Covenant, which was placed in the Holy of Holies. On the cover of the Ark were two more Cherubim. So any Jew would have recognized from this, that the vision of Ezekiel was a vision of the Holy of Holies, which was itself a prophetic type of the true, heavenly Holy of Holies.
But the description of the Cherubim also illuminates the meaning of the vision and an important truth about one of the aspects of the Holy of Holies. Ezekiel’s cherubim are described as having wings and wheels. This symbolically indicates that God could move effortlessly and instantaneously through the heavens, by the wings, and through the earth, via the wheels. Another important element is that ancient Jewish tradition saw these Cherubim as being Cherubim chariots of God.
Well, what are chariots used for? Chariots are of course machinations of war. “The Lord is a warrior; Lord is His name” (Ex 15:3); and so we see that the chariot is a symbol of military combat. For instance, it was Pharaoh, his chariots and his charioteers who were drowned in the returning waters of the Red Sea. This teaches us that the vision of Ezekiel peering into the Holy of Holies and seeing the chariot Cherubim of the Lord, God of Hosts reveals a military element of the Holy of Holies.
We can see from this vision a view of the Church Militant. Jesus is the true Holy of Holies. We become a part of this Holy of Holies through Baptism and we are sustained and nourished through the Holy Eucharist. The Eucharist gives us the means to grow and develop into the fullness of the Holy of Holies, Christ. We receive the living water, the Holy Spirit, in the Eucharist; a living water welling up to eternal life.
This vision reveals an important part of the OA spirituality; that of spiritual combat. We are a part of the Church Militant and we are called to arms with the holy angels for the glory of God and the building up of the Holy Church. This vision from Ezekiel helps us to see that we do not fight alone. We fight with the power of God and the assistance of the Hosts of Heaven. This is something marvelous to meditate upon, so as to gain courage through greater understanding.
We have entered more deeply into the mystery of the Temple by deepening our understanding in three areas: worship, justice and spiritual combat. Worship is made possible through Baptism and the Eucharist and at its essence is the giving of ourselves back to God in love. It is through God’s mercy that we are raised to the level of Divine Love to be able to make of ourselves a gift through worship. We can rightly say, then, that mercy and justice have met, because God’s justice requires our giving ourselves fully to Him in return for His giving Himself fully to us. This giving of ourselves back to God is not done in isolation, but as an act of communion with all our brothers and sisters doing battle for the salvation of souls! Thus we are revealed as the Holy of Holies of God in mercy (worship), justice and spiritual combat.
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