Holy, Holy, Holy

Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory. Isaiah 6:3

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us. Trisagion

A couple of days ago, @tomcottar retweeted @edstetzer:

Holiness is not separation from sinners. It is separation from sin.

At the time I had several thoughts, but none that would fit in 140 characters, so I let it go. I saw it retweeted some more that day, so it stayed on my mind. Then yesterday, I was following up a reference in the OSB when I saw this note with Ephesians 1:4-6.

Becoming a Christian is not so much inviting Christ into one’s life as getting oneself into Christ’s life.

As I reflected on that, I realized that I would need to capture my reaction to the initial tweet on holiness in writing and it would take me considerably more than 140 characters to do it.

I believe many people think of holy as roughly synonymous with good or pure or moral. And, at least in the sense that Christians use the word, that’s really not what it means. We draw our use and understanding from that of the ancient Jewish people and qadosh, to the extent that I understand it, draws more from the idea of being distinct, set apart, or separate. As an illustration, variants of the word refer to the male and female temple prostitutes that were common in the ancient pagan world. The ancient Hebrews certainly did not think of the practice as pure or moral, but did recognize that the temple prostitutes had been set apart for worship, even if pagan worship.

As an aside, that does also illustrate an interesting point. Monotheism, the belief that there is only one God, is not actually the belief of the ancient Jewish people. Rather, it’s a belief that developed over time and we probably don’t see it really in evidence until around the 2nd century BCE. For much of the Old Testament, the faith of the Israelites is better described as henotheism, or the worship of one God even as you accept the reality of other gods. God guided them through a long transition from polytheism to monotheism rooted in the commandment to worship only him. The story of the people of God makes a lot more sense if you read it with that understanding.

One of the tidbits I’ve picked up along the way about the ancient hebrew language is that it did not have comparatives and superlatives (as was not uncommon in ancient languages) in the same way that we modify words to express those concepts. Rather, it repeated the word being emphasized. Thus “holy, Holy, HOLY” as the angels are singing in Isaiah’s vision is a way of saying the most Holy or the most apart, distinct, separate, or different. God, in his essence, is entirely other from creation. He is the uncreated. And yet in the same song, we find the remarkable tension of our faith. God is entirely other from creation, and at the same time all creation is filled with his glory. God is immanent. This is the truth we see  fully realized in the Incarnation of our Lord. The God who is wholly other becomes fully one of us. The God who is other enters into and joins his creation in the most intimate way possible. Why? Because our God is a God who is love and love sacrifices for the other. Our God is good and the lover of mankind. He is not other and distant, but other and near. We pray in the Trisagion for the thrice holy God to have mercy on us. And the raw beauty of the Incarnation is that he does, in the only way possible.

And that, finally, brings me to my reaction to the tweet. The words from which “sin” is translated draw from a theme of “missing the mark“. Since our mark is God and our life is now hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3), it is true that as we draw toward our mark, we will move away from that which is not our mark. And the point of the tweet is an important one. As the people of the Christ (indeed, in so intimate a way that a description of the Church as body and as bride is natural in Scripture) who dined with tax collectors and sinners without regard for the laws regarding ritual cleanliness, as those who are already being healed, we must not draw away from those who need healing. We are the hospital.

As another aside, in the laws of ritual cleanliness by which, in part, the Jews were set apart as a people, it’s clear that one could be made ritually unclean by touch. Ritual cleanness or holiness, however, could not be similarly transmitted. That was utterly dependent on your own actions and required positive effort. Jesus, however, acted utterly differently. Not only did he act as though he could not be made unclean by contact, he acted as though those who came in contact with him could be made clean. Unless you understand that part of the context, you will miss part of the power of the Gospel narratives.

Back to the point, though I agree with the intent of the original tweet, I think there is a problem with the way it’s phrased. Whatever our intent, when we express an idea of “holiness” in the negative sense, as something that it is not, we put the focus and emphasis on that thing which it is not. So by describing holiness as separation from sin, we place the focus on sin. And when that happens, I can find no place in history or experience where our efforts do not collapse into moralism and legalism. We inevitably end up doing exactly what Ed Stetzer was tweeting against. We draw away from sinners.

I would suggest that we are better served by focusing on what holiness is rather than on what it is not. And, as Fr. Alexander Schmemman says in For the Life of the World: “Holy” is the real name of God. We have died and our life is hidden with Christ in God. We seek to live by growing in communion with God. We are on a journey to rejoin our life, toward union with the only source of life. Holiness lies in the journey of theosis.

Holy is God and holiness is our life in Christ.

This entry was posted in Faith and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

2 Comments

  1. Dana Ames
    Posted October 22, 2009 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

    This is good, Scott. (Well, so are the rest of your musings…)

    For about the last ten years, since just before I picked up N.T. Wright, I’ve thought that the mark we miss when we sin is also about our own humanity. The Second Person of the Trinity became human in order to heal our humanity and make it able once again to be in communion with the Godhead. It is not acting from our “human nature” when we sin and do not act in and from love; such a thing is actually *in*human . What is from our true human nature is when we act from our connection to God, in love.

    Humanity has been set back on the road.

    Dana

  2. Posted October 23, 2009 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    Thanks. Well, since we were created for life in God, then yes, that’s our true humanity. When we try to find our life anywhere else, we are choosing to be something other than human.

    Hmmm. As Romans 8 indicates, the Word became human in order to “save” humanity and through that re-creation restore creation itself. Which is, of course, why the idea that Jesus acted to save me as a single human being is not so much wrong (after all he desires to save all of mankind) as it is too small.

One Trackback

  • By Saturday Evening Blog Post on November 7, 2009 at 9:44 pm

    […] in her Saturday Evening blog post. I finally decided to go ahead and add a link. I chose my reflection last month on holiness. No particular reason beyond the fact that it was the one I most enjoyed […]

%d bloggers like this: