Sunday, February 03, 2013


"In our present era, the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action” (Dag Hammarskjold).

“What we are all more or less lacking at this moment is a new definition of holiness” (Teilhard de Chardin).

 In the Hebrew, the word for “holy” is qadhosh. It comes from
a root meaning “to cut, to separate.” In Hebrew understanding, and common to human religions, that which is holy is cut off, separated from common usage for sacred purposes.

 In the Christian church we speak of the holy Bible, or the holy sacraments, or holy baptism, and even the holy church. We consecrate a place for worship that is set apart from common use. We divide life into the sacred and the secular, those things that are “holy” and those things that are common. In traditional terms, the road to holiness was found in turning from the world and things of the world, in taking the path of asceticism, of prayer and contemplation. It is perhaps understandable that, amid the corruption of the late Roman Empire, the early church believed that to achieve holiness it was necessary to cut one’s self off from the world, to go to the desert to seek perfection in a life of prayer, or to live with a small group of like-minded people a life of rigorous spiritual discipline.

 This is the way the monastic movement began, and some traditions of the Christian church still divide their priesthood into “the secular” who serve the church in parishes (in the world), and “the religious” or “the perfect” who withdraw from the world to a life of contemplation and prayer, a life of holiness.

 The Protestant Reformation, with its return to the Scriptures, brought a different understanding. The call of God to holiness did not mean withdrawal from the world, but serving God in the world. There were no Protestant monasteries. Much of the ornamentation used to denote the holiness of God was cast off—images
and art works in churches, elaborate vestments for the clergy, incense and esoteric practices in the liturgy. The altar, symbolizing the presence of God, was moved from the chancel (from which the people were separated by a wall or a fence) to become the communion table, symbolizing the presence of God in the midst of the people. The elements for the communion service were to be the bread and drink of their common life, and the people were to receive both.

 We seem to have two understandings of holiness. The first might be called “the holiness of the Law,” attained by means of separation from all that is unclean (a cutting off, as in the Hebrew word quadhosh). It means following the guidelines, the customs, the laws that set people apart, separating them from that which
is sinful and unclean. It is a righteousness that we might conceivably approximate. By keeping the commandments, even proximately, I can pat myself on the back. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people” (Luke 18:9–14.) But this kind of holiness can maintain itself only by its very rigidity, and so lacks the
qualities of mercy, forgiveness, and grace, which Nicholas Berdyaev called “the morality beyond morality,” the necessary corollary of love.

 In Jesus Christ we see a second and different kind of holiness. In the New Testament, the understanding of holiness is a holiness of love—not a separation from but an involvement in, not a drawing
back from sinners and sinful situations because my purity might be sullied, but a “going into all the world” and being involved in the business of living, in commerce and labor and politics.

 The holiness of love can be fulfilled only in relationship with God and others. It is a holiness of right relationships, for love is necessarily a relationship. We cannot be righteous in ourselves, no
matter how many things we do or do not do. This holiness is dependent upon our relations with others, upon justice and mercy. It is a higher holiness, a righteousness that “exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees”—not self-righteousness, but righteousness of relationships.

 This is the holiness we see in the life and ministry of Jesus, who was derided as a “friend of publicans and sinners” and denounced as a glutton and a drunkard. He spoke harsh words to those who tried so hard to prove themselves righteous but in their legalism neglected justice and mercy. They would tithe the tiny seeds of herbs, one in ten for God, but they would not help the man who fell among thieves as he lay groaning in the ditch—because such contact might render them impure.

 This is the kind of holiness we see in the incarnation, the holiness of God. Too long have we thought of God up in heaven, a God whose holiness must be satisfied if we are ever to be acceptable in his sight. Because God is holy, he cannot get involved in the dirty, sinful things of this world.

 But the Bible tells us that “God so loved the world” (John 3:16) that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). In fact, the very heart of the gospel is that God does get involved:

 Let Christ himself be your example as to what your attitude should be. For he (Jesus), who had always been God by nature, did not cling to his prerogatives as God’s equal, but stripped himself of all privilege by consenting to be a slave by nature and being born as mortal man. And, having become man, he humbled himself by living a life of utter obedience, even to the extent of dying, and the death he died was the death of a common criminal. (Philippians 2:5–8, Phillips translation)

 Dag Hammerskjold, a Swedish statesman who became Secretary General of the United Nations, died in 1961 in a plane crash in the Congo on a mission of peace. He left behind a diary revealing the pilgrimage of a deeply religious man. One of his statements is almost shocking in its simplicity—“In our present era, the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action.”

 The call to life in the Spirit of Jesus Christ cannot be a call to leave the world or any part of the world in a self-seeking quest for holiness. Christian holiness is a call to get involved in the world that God loves—that scarred, sinning, corrupt, hurting world that in its anxiety and self-concern has turned from God. It is a call to
action, to get involved, and to take risks. It is a call to go into those places where there is hurt and confusion, where there may be immorality and injustice. In the words of George MacLeod of Iona:

 I simply argue that the Cross be raised again at the centre of the market place as well as on the steeple of the Church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a Cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves, on the town garbage heap, on a crossroads so cosmopolitan that they had to write His title in Hebrew, Latin and Greek . . .; at the kind of place where cynics talked smut, and thieves cursed, and soldiers gambled. Because that is where He died and that is what He died about, that is where Church people should be and what Church people should be about. (from Reading the Bible for the Love of God, pp. 115f.)


Peter Black said...

Thank you Alan, for providing such a helpful and compact historical overview.
You bring clarity and understanding, helping us to distinguish the kind of holiness we are called to in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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