Coals, Tongs, and Human Mediation

The Divine Liturgy for Feb. 2 is a major holy day, and focuses upon “The Presentation of the Lord” as an infant of 40 days in the Temple—or, as we often call it in Orthodoxy, “the Meeting” of the Lord. This is a special day for me, since my final decision to seek entrance into the Orthodox Church came directly as a result of this feast. (God works in mysterious ways!) Six years ago this month 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, picked out gingerly with tongs, is not to be touched; yet it is 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? As a Protestant, I had always thought that the immediate presence of the Lord and mediation were incompatible. But here, the prophet Isaiah blithely puts the concepts of immediate divine presence and mediation side-by-side, without comment: coal on lips; coal carried by an angel with tongs. 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 quasi-magical intercession of the saints certainly figured in my thinking at the time. (Even today in Pittsburgh some Catholic women insist that putting their large statue of the Holy Mother Mary in a certain position will keep away the rain.)

In my memory also echoed the chorus that I sang as a child Sunday after Sunday as a child in an evangelical community: “For there is one God and one Mediator, ‘twixt God and man…the Man Christ Jesus!” 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 our Lord as an infant in the Temple? The answer is in our 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 the elder 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 we learn in the Church to give thanks for her, and to give thanks also for others, like Simeon and our holy fathers (and mothers), who have borne Him to us. That thanksgiving does not rob the Holy One of his unique glory but celebrates the wonder that we have seen His glory! He meets with us, uses others to meet with us, and enlightens our darkness.

* * *

Alongside the elder, who spoke of the Messiah and his mother, there is the figure of Anna, who announced to all who would listen the advent of infant God-Man.  Intrigued by her life and actions, I share with you this poem, written in the style of T. S. Eliot’s “Song for Simeon.”  I hope that St Anna will not mind my cheek in giving poetic voice to her briefly reported witness in Luke 2!

Anna’s Song

Lady, seven years of wedlock made me widow, served me solitude,
When I had offered my flowers to a husband too soon dead;
Young, as I was then, you bring fruit
of your womb to the knife of the Temple,
and hear the inevitable intonation of the waiting elder
that you too will suffer—
Yet suffer not alone.

Not alone.
This child is for the fall and rise of many.
In strength beyond my threescore and ten
I have retraced stones in the portico of David’s son and the women’s court,
Kept fast and faith, served God night and day,
Listened for the word to speak,
Waited unknowing for this Word, who now lies unspeaking
In the aching arms of one as old as I.

Not alone.
The thoughts of many will be revealed,
And the inner chamber of the Temple too.
So now even the ancient daughter of Phanuel has a pregnant word to utter,
(As the age of sorrow reaches the end of her labor):
And I will give thanks!

Not alone!
Thanks be to the One who has heard our cry,
Who, requiring no ransom yet proffers himself, his parents’ presentation,
As consolation of Israel, desire of nations–
Lamb to the slaughter?

Let those who seek
Look here alone for release from long exile,
Ponder in their hearts this Child who must wax strong in Spirit and in stature,
Yet be subject,
And found in his Father’s house,
And then on a hill.

To those who seek
I am driven, no longer harnessed to this House,
But hopeful and raving of a home inhabited by Righteousness—
For indeed, He is here. And can it be
That the very world is no longer his footstool
But his sanctuary?

He touches my lips as he fills the elder’s arms,
That holy coal Isaiah saw of old,
Brought here enthroned upon your arms, Lady.
Your hands are as angelic tongs clasping the burning Coal,
Offered that we might seek, that we might take, that we might speak,
That we all might be filled, a living tabernacle
Made not with hands, cleansed by the very Spirit of life.
So will he be enthroned upon the praise of new Israel!

Maiden mother, count me your kinswoman,
Lips loosed like your cousin,
Frail but fecund like Elisabeth,
The joy jumping within me,
Giving thanks and speaking of Him
To all.

Blessed are you: in my end
There is my beginning;
In his death,
There will be our birth.
In your arms, in our midst and on our lips,
Here is Hope.


  1. This is beautiful! Thank you.
    I have a blank journal that I am writing/copying things that touch me, wise sayings, etc.. So far, only two quotes, from St Moses the Ethiopian, and St Theophan the Recluse. Would I be permitted to add this to the journal? It is only for my personal reading and reflection. And would have author named at the end of the quote/ copy.
    Thank you again for sharing this beautiful piece.

  2. Hi Dr. Humphrey,

    We very rarely meet St. Anna in our Earthly travels via sermons or homilys. I think that Scott Hahn has mentioned her on a youtube video and said that she signifies for Israel that the Missiah has come to unify Israel and bring all Israel’s 12 tribes symbolically together. This of course goes back to the dividing of the kingdom of Israel into the Northern and Southern Kingdoms (Matthew 12:9-14, Mark 3:1-6 and Luke 6:6-11). Jesus also alludes to bringing the 12 tribes together when he heals the man with the withered hand. The healing of this mans hand signifies Jeroboam, (1 Kings 13:1-10). Both of these stories point to Jesus as healing and unifiying all Israel.

    Yes, our Father uses mediators to proclaim his word in both action and deed. My parents, whom God gave authority over me, baptized me when I was an infant. They were the first mediators bringing me into God Salvation. It was their responsibility to give me a thirst for Gods love for me and to teach me the meaning of the scriptures.

    The Apostles were the first witnesses to the resurrection and each and every generation since, has handed down to us the teachings of Jesus.

    In Christ,

    Ron Iacone

    1. Ron, thank you for your comments. Scott Hahn is a good friend of mine, and I have not heard his talk on this, but I suspect that Anna is singled out as referring to the dispersed tribes because she is of the tribe of Asher, though living in Jerusalem. It is indeed likely that by identifying her tribe, Luke wants to indicate that the Messiah is not simply for Judeans, but for Israel as a whole, and that Jesus fulfills the history of all of God’s people. Simeon’s words indicate the same thing, though of course he also speaks of Jesus as a light to the Gentiles! As for the man with the withered hand, I had never heard that interpretation, and wonder if any of the fathers teach it (I will investigate). It seems odd, since Jeroboam’s hand, withered because he will not accept prophetic correction over idolatry at Dan, is restored in that same story. I’ll let you know what I discover next week concerning this. As for mediation, yes, we are all dependent upon each other, and there are clear lines of authority that has been established in the Church, from the Apostles, and through the three-fold ministry. Amazingly, however, God also uses “the little child” or unexpected ministrations of those who do not hold these offices, for the Holy Spirit is now given to all, and not simply to prophet, priest and king! For example, do remember that although the twelve apostles are the FORMAL witnesses listed by the apostle in 1 Cor 15, St. Paul himself claimed apostleship (though an unusual kind) on the basis of seeing Jesus on the road to Emmaus, and the women (especially St. Mary Magdalene) have the honour of being the first mediators of this news. St. Mary Magdalene is thus given the title “equal-to-the-apostles” or “apostle to the apostles.” Luke is very aware of God’s bringing together of unusual and usual means, and frequently pairs men and women together in his gospel, as an example of this. There is mutuality in the Church, alongside order or hierarchy.

  3. Thank you so very much for your response. I look forward to what you will add to the present conversation.

    May I ask how you came to believe in transubstantion after going from the Salvation Army, to Anglicanism, to the Orthodox Church, where they also believe, as the Catholic Church does, in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I recently put up a post on Transubstantion on my blog in answer to a question on a Protestant blog post, asking what did Jesus mean when he said “Eat My Flesh.”

    At the ETS Conference in 2010, you mentioned something about the Real Presence during either your talk or during the discussion panel. I thought that was pretty gutsy in that venue. So thank you for that.

    In Christ,

    Ron Iacone

    1. Ron, I think that you do not quite understand the Orthodox teaching on the mysteries. We believe that the wine and bread actually become the blood and body of Christ, but we do not use Aristotelian categories such as “transubstantiation” in order to explain this change. It is simply a mystery, not to be divided between accidents and substance, as is the Catholic teaching. Even some Anglicans believe in the actual physical presence of Christ in the sacraments, by the way (normally these are called Anglo-Catholics). I always held the sacraments in very high regard, and was troubled that my childhood Christian community (the Salvation Army) did not practice them. As an Anglican, I believed that a great mystery took place in the Eucharist, but was surrounded by Christians with diverse opinions concerning this. Both the Scriptures (for example 1 Corinthians and the fourth gospel) and the Church fathers speak of the eucharist as a great mystery, connected intimately with the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, and the great banquet to come at the resurrection. Especially the apostle Paul’s words about the danger to the health of one’s physical body when one takes the eucharist unworthily convinced me that the Eucharist could not simply be a symbol, a mental act of remembrance. And Jesus said, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink of his blood, you cannot have life within you.” So, intellectually I believed before I actually became Orthodox that the eucharist was central to our life. Since becoming Orthodox, with the disciplines of confession and fasting, and the wonderful preparation of the Liturgy for the reception of the mysteries, I have come more and more to be strengthened by them. My experience more and more matches the teaching of the Church about this great gift. I am so grateful for the teaching and the life of the Church, and for Christ’s provision of himself in the holy mysteries!

  4. Dr. Humphrey,

    Thats a praise right there. You are of course correct in saying that I dont quite understand the Orthodox understanding of the Eucharist…….but I love it anyway. I have attended a couple of Byzantine Catholic masses here in Cary, NC.

    My wife and I went to Santorini this past summer and we walked into the Greek Orthodox church to ask if we, Roman Catholics, could receive the Eucharist that Sunday. We were told by the Priest that in this particular church we could receive it, but not in all Greek Orthodox churches. My daily prayers include praying for Christian Unity. I hope that topic comes up in the scheduled 2016 Ecumenical Council in Constantinople.



    1. Dear Ron:
      I am very glad that you are intrigued with the Orthodox Church. Certainly you will get a sense of the way that we worship also through the Byzantine rite, though of course there are differences, including our understanding of authority. I am surprised at the priest allowing you to commune in Santorini! It was not really his prerogative to allow this, since the ORthodox church is not in communion with Rome, though the Catholic church allows Orthodox to commune at their churches (but Orthodox bishops have instructed us not to). Our feeling is that this is like intimacy before marriage–we may hope for reunion, but to participate in a Roman Catholic Mass would be to admit the authority of the Pope, which we do not (at least not as that office is now construed by Rome). We should certainly pray for Christian unity, and that unity needs to be substantial, not just formal–it would include coming to terms with the office of the Pope and other Patriarchs, an understanding about the creed, teachings about the THeotokos, and so on. The more we talk together, work for issues like pro-life matters together, pray together, the better–but intercommunion requires a common faith, which we do not QUITE share yet. God will lead us.

  5. Hi Dr. Humphrey,

    I’m glad I found a RC church in having an English mass while we were on Santorini. My feeling about Christian Unity not only stems from The High Priestly Prayer in John 17, but also from the fact that here are also 2-4 billion people in the world who are not Christians. This population remains unevangelized (if that is the correct term) and at this time, all are witnesses to a divided Christianity. What are we to do? I’ve wrote about Table Fellowship on my blog (no expert here, just one of the flock), the idea of which I got from listening to Dr. Timothy George’s paper presentation on the Wheaton College Conference 2014.

    If Table Fellowship can’t be achieved between the one true and first church which split in 1054 into two separated churches, then Table Fellowship will never occur and the hoped for Unity that Christ prayed for will not occur until the parosia. What will Our Lord and Savior say to us then? We aren’t just separated brethren, we dismembered our Lord and every church or denomination has failed to drop everything and make peace with his brother/sister, as our Lord has commanded.

    We all have an obligtion to bring about Christian Unity……I don’t believe that Jesus’ prayer for Unity was just a Prayer of Hope, but a command for US living TODAY. Nothing is by accident in Scripture. The Holy Spirit, who is to guide us to all Truth, did not allow a dismemberment to occur to the Mystical Body of Christ. He allowed this to occur so we can find a way, In and With Christian Love to move back to full communion with one another, in whatever that form will eventually be.

    Again, thank you for this engaging conversation. Also, I thank God that he has put so much Good Information at our finger tips via the Internet.

    In Christ,


    1. Ron, all of us in the historic Churches are not happy with the schisms that have occurred. The major question, though, is what to do about them. Some feel that outward reunion, even when there are substantive differences, is a way forward. Others of us are certain that the differences need to be addressed, and resolved, or reunion is not authentic. Certainly, we should pray, talk and work with each other whenever we can. And though lack of unity is a scandal, I find the words of C. S. Lewis comforting, who says that to the outsider, even despite the differences, the common ground of Christians remains an enormous challenge, a question mark beside all skepticism. God uses us even in our frailty. May the time come when we are, as the LORD prayed, truly one, saying the same thing and sharing a common life in all those things that matter!

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