Holiness, in OT terms, is being “set apart”. God set apart the Sabbath from the other days. The commandment is to keep the Sabbath “holy” by setting it apart from the other days. God makes things holy by division. Israel was set apart to be a light to all nations; Levites were set aside to maintain Israel’s holy covenant with God; special meals were set aside to designate holy times in the nation’s history.
Jesus comes along and turns that on its head. He makes meals holy by eating with the disenfranchised. He makes human contact holy by healing unclean lepers through touch. He makes Gentiles holy by talking to them, by allowing himself to be corrected by them and by affirming their faith. In doing so he brings equality to the nations, essentially rebuking the alleged holiness of Israel. If he wasn’t executed for blasphemy, they could’ve gotten him for treason or at least a dangerous apathy toward patriotism.
So what does it mean to be holy today? I certainly don’t feel particularly holy, though as a clergyperson, I do claim a certain set-asideness. I approach this set-asideness as a burden of duty, even if it’s a duty I enjoy. I am called, set aside, to serve God, my neighbors and the covenant between us. And I feel strongly that we should reclaim the Sabbath as a matter of community health and justice.
At the same time, I don’t strongly encourage or regularly practice many things often thought of as holy: I don’t pray or read my Bible first thing in the morning. Am I missing something? Perhaps: Jesus awoke early to pray and seemed to need that time to recover and refuel for the work ahead. And there is probably good reason why monastics arise early in the morning to pray. And I could use a new Bible-reading regimen.
Sitting with a group of international young adults at Taize (a certainly holy set aside experience that still shapes me), a young Catholic priest was talking about how easy it was for him to pray in the mornings. A young mother chimed in: “I have small children. I am so busy and tired that the expectation that I arise early is almost cruel.” This mother’s rebuttal of the priest has had a lasting impression. What then is prayer? Is the mother’s cry for relief somehow not heard or not heeded by God? Of course God hears and heeds her. And despite the inconveniences of her motherhood, she made the long pilgrimage to Taize just like the priest. And does God expect her to arise early to talk? Is God patient and empathetic enough to hear her whenever she finds the time? There’s no doubt that time for quiet reflection would be great for this mother. Perhaps in the season she was in prayer meant something different. And perhaps God understands that.
I can’t say now that holiness is set-asideness. It seems more about our closeness to God and our closeness to others. It seems more about seeing the image of God in others and acting accordingly.
Holiness is rightly accompanied by humility which understands the complex and mysterious nature of humanity’s relationship with God and each other. Humility recognizes our limited knowledge, our faltering wisdom and our ability to sin and sin grievously. Set-asideness without honest acknowledgement of our infirmities breeds arrogance and greases the wheels of mistreatment. Jesus eating with sinners was a holy act because he decided to see them as equally inhabited with the image of God. Of course, that’s one of many things that made Jesus so historically unique.
One day, holiness will no longer be a mystery. Until then, let us strive and work out our faiths with fear and trembling…or something like that.