Coals, Tongs and Human Mediation
In the lectionary, we have just finished contemplating Jesus’ presentation in the Temple—or, as we call it in Orthodoxy, “the Meeting” of the Lord. That is a particular gift to me, since my decision to enter the Orthodox church came partly as a result of this feast. (But God works in mysterious ways!) Five years ago I was working through Isaiah 6 for my worship book, Grand Entrance. I was struck by the numerous tensions or paradoxes when the heavens are opened for Isaiah. The Lord is transcendent (holy! holy! holy!) but also immanent (“the earth is full of his glory”). The seraphim have faces like us, yet cover their strange forms with wings. There are two seraphim, and yet one voice calls out. The coal is not to be touched, picked out gingerly with tongs, yet carried in the angel’s hand and placed immediately upon the prophet’s lips. It is the last paradox that struck me.
What is it about our Lord that makes it both possible for him to come to us personally, and that demands that this “coming” be mediated? I had always thought that the immediate presence of the Lord and mediation were incompatible. But here, Isaiah blithely puts the concepts side by side, without comment. Visions are indeed wonderful, for in them the mysteries of God, the things that we find paradoxical, can be poignantly and convincingly pictured for us. Could it be that my suspicion of mediation was an over-reaction to mediation wrongly pictured and unhelpfully taught? Medieval stories of exaggerated and magical intercession of the saints certainly figured in my thinking at the time.
In my memory also echoed the chorus that I sang as a child Sunday after Sunday, “For there is one God and one Mediator, ‘twixt God and man…the Man Christ Jesus!” (Oops! 1960s exclusive language!) Yes, it is true that “only One is holy; only One is the Lord”—but this Holy One is not jealous of his own glory, and in his incarnation has shared it with us. This includes the grace of mediation: “How do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband?” (1 Cor 7:16); “[Saul,] rise, and enter the city, and you will be told [by a human being] what you are to do!” (Acts 9:9); “Whoever brings back a sinner …will save his soul from death” (James 5:19). Evidently, our God delights to use human mediators!
So what does this have to do with baby Jesus in the Temple. The answer is in an ancient Orthodox hymn: “Christ, the coal of fire, whom holy Isaiah foresaw, now rests in the arms of the God-bearer Mary as in a pair of tongs, and He is given to the elder” To Simeon, and to us! Jesus the Christ, comes to us by human as well as divine agency, born of the Holy Spirit AND the Virgin Mary. So I learned to give thanks for her, and for others who have borne Him to us. That thanks does not rob him of his unique glory but celebrates the wonder that we have seen his glory since he has met us, used us, and enlightened our darkness.
Written by Dr. Edith M. Humphrey, William F. Orr Professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary