by Father Mike Stubbs
If you saw smoke billowing out of your house, you most probably would feel concerned. Smoke is a sign of fire. You usually don’t want that in your house, unless it involves puffs of smoke rising out of the chimney.
On the other hand, you would expect to see smoke in the Temple at Jerusalem during the time of the prophet Isaiah. Sacrifices were constantly being offered there. That means that they were burnt on the altar. In fact, the word “holocaust” derives from Greek words meaning “burnt offering.”
Besides the cattle and sheep and doves being sacrificed in the Temple, a large amount of incense was also offered every day as part of the evening sacrifice. All that burning produced a lot of smoke. That may explain why Sunday’s first reading — Is 6:1-2a, 3-8 — says about the Temple: “and the house was filled with smoke.” Here, the word “house” means “house of God.”
At the same time, the smoke in the Temple would have suggested more than just a byproduct of the large numbers of animals being burnt. It would also have suggested the presence of God.
After all, smoke in the Old Testament often indicated God’s presence. When Moses encountered God on Mount Sinai in the desert, smoke signaled God’s presence: “Mount Sinai was all wrapped in smoke, for the Lord came down upon it in fire. The smoke rose from it as though from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently” (Ex 19:18).
When the people of Israel travel through the desert for 40 years, a cloud of smoke travels with them to indicate God’s presence: “In the daytime the cloud of the Lord was seen over the Dwelling; whereas at night, fire was seen in the cloud by the whole house of Israel in all the stages of their journey” (Ex 40:38).
In the Bible, smoke is not only a sign of fire. It is also a sign of God’s presence. The smoke not only points to God’s presence but, at the same time, it also hides it, since it is more difficult to see through the cloud of smoke.
Sunday’s reading describes Isaiah’s encounter with God in the Temple. As a result of that encounter, God calls Isaiah to be his prophet. This dramatic event will change Isaiah’s life forever, as well as radically impact the history of Israel. Isaiah’s words responding to God’s call provide a model for us all: “Here I am, send me!”