At every Mass, the ending is that phrase, “Ite, missa est,” meaning “Go, the Mass is ended.” You can tell it’s a big moment, because at times we might even sing it to a somewhat difficult, melismatic tune. The priest Ronald Knox who was a really good 20th century writer, talks in one of his books about how when he was still a young deacon he was nervous to sing it for the first time. He says, “I went out into the drive after breakfast to have a last rehearsal all by myself, and the moment I started I-i-i . . . every single rook in every tree in the drive got up and left, so I felt like St. Francis preaching to the birds.” When not even birds can stand to hear your singing, you know you’ve got some work to do. Knox became despondent and wondered why it’s so necessary for the clergy to demand that you all go away now. After all, you’re beginning to think about breakfast and don’t need all that much motivation to leave.
The reason for the Ite, Missa Est is buried in the Latin. Missa. Mission. You go forth now, begin your Christian mission. The whole purpose of a Mass is to first convert us into the image of Christ and then set us upon our mission. Life is a kaleidoscope of different fates and circumstances. We are brought here for this moment at this time, the one Body of Christ. We are fed from his Body and Blood, strengthened for our missionary activity. By receiving him at communion we become tabernacles and carry Our Lord with us into the world, each of us to our different lives, to a unique mission. No one can do it for you, it is your path alone.
Now, the prophet Isaiah has perhaps the most startling vocation story in all of the Scriptures. He speaks of falling into a vision in which he becomes shrouded in the glory of God, a glory that warps the boundaries of time and space as he sees God both seated upon a throne within the Temple but also overflowing and defining the space itself as the train of his robe wreaths the area in smoke. This is the smoke of an incense offering which is kept burning in the temple. It’s an offering that drifts into the sphere of the angelic as the Seraphim, who are the highest order of angel, sing the Sanctus in voices that rattle the very stones of the doorframes. These stones that make up the Temple, if you’ve ever seen them, are massive, so Isaiah is witnessing a scene of many magnitudes of power, and in fact he becomes frightened, saying, “Woe is me. I am doomed.” At that moment, a Seraphim takes a burning coal from the altar and touches it to Isaiah’s lips, an act which burns away his sins and prepares him for his vocation as a prophet.
In the sense that this vision is highly symbolic, frightful, and filled with awe, we might place it in the category of apocalyptic literature, just like St. John’s Apocalypse. Here’s where I always get a bit rattled – apocalyptic literature is about the Mass. The calling of Isaiah is the story of his Ite, Missa Est. If we had the eyes to see, it would quickly become apparent that we are standing at a threshold. We are in the presence of God, surrounded by angels and saints, and great mysteries are veiled here. The mass is a cataclysm wherein we stand at the edge of time, on the brink of eternity, and our great high priest places his vulnerable and fiery heart on the altar, blazing like a coal. This is the end of the world and we are at it. That must have been how Isaiah felt.
The burning coal is a type and image of the Eucharist. St. Ephraem says, “In your bread hides the Spirit who cannot be consumed; in your wine is the fire that cannot he swallowed. The Spirit in your bread, fire in your wine: behold a wonder heard from our lips.” St. Robert Southwell once had a vision of the Christ child at Christmas, and already Our Lord is aflame, saying, “My faultless breast the furnace is…love is the fire.” The Eucharist burns with the fire of God’s love. You may have heard that, when you receive the Eucharist, it has the effect of forgiving your venial sins. This is because, just like the unworthiness of Isaiah was burned away by the coal, so to does the Eucharist do the same for us when it touches our lips. The effect of receiving this glorious sacrament at Mass should be to inflame our hearts with love for God and one another, and make us eager to fulfill the mission of the Church: “Here am I! Send me!”
When we look to the Gospel, we leap to a different metaphor for vocation. We might call it fishing in the dark. The future disciples, who are professional fishermen, catch nothing all night and their nets are empty. Our Lord teaches them how to fish, and although the metaphor is different, the process is the exact same as what happens to Isaiah. You may be asking yourself some hard questions right now about your vocation and just where you fit into God’s plan. It’s funny, we’re always told that we are important and God has a purpose and destiny just for us, and it’s true, but the destiny is embodied in millions of small actions and influences that perhaps we never even notice because we’re too distracted or jealous of other people. Our lives are always in flux and we all find there are times we’re more or less fishing in the dark, completely lost and helpless during a transitional phase. For all of us, the fishing lesson is the same – Seek repentance. Practice detachment and abandonment of worldly goods. Slow down and reflect. Know yourself, your spiritual state. Encounter Jesus and allow the burning coal of his love to kindle a fire in your soul.