Another tax season is upon us. Last week the parish employees received their W-2 forms from the back-office outsource company that does our payroll processing. There were a few mathematical errors on my W-2, and I noticed that all of the forms listed the Employer as “All Saints Conference.” I wondered if that meant that the parish had been the subject of a hostile takeover by our local Conference of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. I’ve always had my suspicions about them. They’re always so caring toward people in need; they must have an ulterior motive.
There is a joke among astrophysicists that makes fun of the randomness of events in the universe. The joke says that if enough monkeys were put in front of typewriters, and left there long enough, random chance would lead the monkeys eventually to produce a Shakespearean sonnet. I don’t know if the payroll processing company doesn’t have enough monkeys, or enough typewriters, but they certainly seem to produce enough random results. If the IRS doesn’t accept my tax return this year, please remember me while I’m in federal prison.
In all honesty, I would probably be griping even if there were no errors on the forms. Taxes, by nature, seem to be a burden. Even the most patriotic citizens would probably admit that, given a choice, they would pay fewer taxes. We like to ignore the fact that income tax, sales tax, property taxes and the like are necessities. Taxes fund the kinds of services that citizens expect government to provide. Ironically, most citizens pay taxes in order to avoid the penalties associated with tax evasion rather than for the sake of the good works they fund. For a lot of people, church attendance is more like paying a tax to government than giving worship to God.
In the first reading the prophet Isaiah relates a vision of heavenly worship. While standing in the Temple in Jerusalem, he sees a vision of angels who cry out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts! All the earth is filled with his glory!” (Isaiah 6:3) During our Eucharistic Prayer this morning we will sing a paraphrase of this line from Isaiah.
Isaiah’s experience of witnessing the heavenly worship given to God by the angels led him to acknowledge his unworthiness to participate. He said, “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5)
Isaiah expressed the sort of humility that arises from receiving a blessing beyond one’s asking or imagining. His humility was one of the hallmarks of his career as a prophet. He endured derision and personal humiliation, and he did so for the sake of people who rejected his message. It was no coincidence that his humility was also an example of what was missing from public worship during his lifetime. Isaiah’s feeling of unworthiness contrasted starkly with King Uzziah’s attitude of entitlement and superiority. (2 Chronicles 26:18)
In last week’s homily I mentioned that the prophetic voice of Pope Francis calls every person to repentance over the way we treat one another. Decency is noticeably lacking in our society, and sadly for us, decency is one of the basic requirements for keeping any human society from falling apart. The very minimum we owe other people is to treat them with decency. The Scripture readings this Sunday speak about the minimum we owe to God. Isaiah’s response to his vision of the heavenly liturgy (Isaiah 6:5), St. Paul’s understanding of his vocation as a preacher of the Gospel (1 Corinthians 15:9), and Simon Peter’s sense of unworthiness in Jesus’ presence (Luke 5:8), are examples of the humility that all people owe to God.
Perhaps you have asked yourself about the existence of God. Is God real? Or, is God merely a projection of my mind, my wishes or my hopes? If it was the case that God is nothing more than a projection of the human mind, we would not need to gather here for worship. More to the point, if God was a projection of the human mind, we would not need God; rather, we would have within ourselves all of the spiritual resources necessary to make sense of our lives, to deal constructively with loss and tragedy and to forgive those who harm us. The evidence, therefore, is overwhelming: we owe humble worship to the One True God.
If you feel like you’ve been paying “heavenly taxes” all your life but receiving little in return, if you feel you come to Mass again and again but you’re never satisfied, if you don’t know what you’re doing here, there is a way to unburden yourself. Isaiah’s humility allowed him to receive God’s forgiveness and hear God’s voice. St. Paul’s humility made his witness to the Resurrection of Jesus believable to people throughout the known world. Simon Peter’s humility made him Jesus’ trusted collaborator. Humility can have the same redeeming and transforming effects in our lives.
Sunday Liturgy can be very repetitive; Catholic worship requires a great deal of cognitive effort. It’s easy to fall into a habit of being physically present here, but mentally absent. We deny ourselves, and God, the intended results of Sunday worship when we see it as a burden, or a mere habit or a price to pay in order to avoid harsh judgment.
When we enter this place, when we take our seats, when we sing and pray, when we return to our homes, at the very least we owe humility to God. Imagine what life would be like if you believed with absolute conviction the words of the heavenly liturgy, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts! All the earth is filled with his glory!” (Isaiah 6:3) If that refrain ran through your daily thoughts, you might see the world very differently.
When we sing those words in a few minutes try, if only as an experiment, to sing them as if you were witnessing angelic worship before God. You might see more here than you’ve seen before.