The Beauty of Holiness

“From earliest times man called sacred or holy that which he perceived as the supreme value, demanding reverence, acknowledgement, awe, and thanksgiving; which at the same time attracted man to itself, inspiring familiarity and intimacy. We speak of the sacred feeling of homeland, of the sacred love towards parents, of sacred awe in the face of beauty, perfection, wonder. Thus, the sacred is that which is higher, purer, demanding all that is best: the best sentiments, the best efforts, the best hopes in man. The peculiarity of the sacred is precisely in the fact that it demands from us an inner awareness of self-evident and free desires; yet not simply an awareness, but action and life consistent with this awareness. The awareness that two times two makes four, or that water boils at a specific temperature leaves us neither better nor worse; such an awareness belongs to the righteous and the unrighteous, to the ignorant and the intelligent, the genius and the simpleton. But if we experience a sacred awareness in terms of beauty, or moral perfection, or a special intuition about the world and life, then this awareness immediately makes some demand on us, effects some change in us, invites us somewhere, captivates us, seduces us.

How simply and beautifully Pushkin described this in his famous poem, “The memory of a glorious moment….” The poet forgets the “vision,” the instruction of “disturbing storms,” the dispersion of “previous hopes,” and writes,

…my soul was stirred

And once again you came,

A passing vision,

A glimmer of beauty pure.

In fullness beats my heart,

Feeling once again

The resurrection of divinity,

And inspiration, and life,

And tears, and love.

Here is the description of the sacred as beauty. This experience changes life in its entirety, fills it, in the words of Pushkin, with meaning, and inspiration, and joy, and the divine. “

(Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Our Father, pp. 26-28)

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All Saints (2018)

Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men,” He says, “him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 10.32).

Notice that we cannot boldly proclaim our faith in Christ and confess Him without His strength and assistance. Nor will Our Lord Jesus Christ speak out on our behalf in the age to come, recommend us to the heavenly Father and make us His kin, unless we give Him reason to do so. To make this clear, He does not say, “Whosoever shall confess me before men”, but “Whosoever shall make his confession in Me” (Matt. 10:32), that is to say, whoever is able, in Christ and with His help, to declare his faith with boldness. Likewise, again, He does not say, “I will confess him”” but “I will acknowledge what is in him“, meaning that His confession will be in respect of the good fight and patient endurance which such a person has shown in the cause of godliness.

Take note, however, of what He goes on to say about those who are cowardly and betray the Faith: “But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 10:33). Here He does not say, “Whosoever shall deny in Me”, since the person who denies God does so because he is bereft of God’s help. Why has he been abandoned and forsaken by God? Because he first abandoned God by loving what is transitory and worldly more than the heavenly and everlasting good things promised by Him. In His turn, Christ will not just disown what is in him, but deny him himself, finding in him nothing at all that could be used in his defense.

(St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, pp. 200-201)

Purity of Heart: Not Just Skin Deep

“What is more, because purity is a means to be like God, it is a matter of internal disposition rather than of external ritual observance. It must rule a person’s language precisely because, as the Lord says, speech reveals the person within, the heart (Matt . 5:22; 15:18; Paed. 2.6.49). The language of the Christian is free of impurity (Eph. 4:29; 5:3ff; Paed. 2.6.50). It is wrong to be preoccupied with external propriety if the person within is impure. The Scribes and the Pharisees are whitewashed sepulchres.  They washed the outside of the cup, but left the inside dirty. It is the impurity of the soul that must be cleansed…

St. John the Forerunner

External beauty is very misleading: it does not lead to the love and beauty which are imperishable (Sir. 9:8; Paed. 3.11.83). For Clement, purity is above all a reasonable virtue, which prevents human beings from becoming like beasts and renders them capable of seeing God (Ps. 49:12, 20 [48:13, 21, LXX]; Sir. 33:6; Paed. 1.13.101ff). Many times Clement insists on the fact that only the pure of heart see God (Matt. 5:8; Strom. 2.10.50) The vision of God face to face is the vision of the Truth, and only a small number can attain to it, for only the pure of heart see God. The Savior came down in order to lead us to this purty and definitive vision.”    (Matt. 5:8; Strom. 5.1.7) (Paul M. Blowers, The Bible in Greek Christian Antiquity, pp. 120-121)

Saints of North America

Expressing the Holy Trinity in Ourselves

The aim of the Christian life, which Seraphim described as the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God, can equally well be defined in terms of deification. Basil described the human person as a creature who has received the order to become a god; and Athanasius, as we know, said that God became human that we humans might become god.

The saints, as Maximus the Confessor put it, are those who express the Holy Trinity in themselves. This idea of a personal and organic union between God and humans — God dwelling in us, and we in Him — is a constant theme in the Epistles of St Paul, who sees the Christian life above all else as a life ‘in Christ’. The same idea recurs in the famous text of 2 Peter: ‘Through these promises you may become partakers of the divine nature’ (i,4).

(Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, p. 225)

Make Holiness Perfect (2 Cor 7:1)

For I am the LORD your God; consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy.  (Leviticus 11:44)

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In any English translation of the New Testament, a host of English words are necessary to capture the full range of basically one Greek word – agios.    We need all of these English words to encompass the various uses of agios in Greek:  holy, holiness, saint, sanctify and sanctification.   In the New Testament, the basic Greek word for holy is used about 260 times.  About 90 times it is used in conjunction with God’s Spirit – the Holy Spirit.  It is used about 120 times to refer in one way or another to humans, God’s people, individuals, prophets, believers.  It is also used in reference to Jesus, God, the temple, a place/city, angels, a kiss, the Law, Scripture and the covenant.   If we take away all of the references to the Holy Spirit, we see that holiness in the New Testament is most often used about people, the believers, the Church members.   Almost never in the New Testament is it used about things – Holy Water, Holy Icon, Holy Chalice, Holy Vestments, etc.   We have the Sunday of All Saints, which is all the people who are holy.  This Sunday follows Pentecost, the giving of the Holy Spirit.   Holiness is about us and our way of life more than about miracles and magic taking hold of things and making them holy.

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Holiness in the New Testament is far more a state of being for humans and also the way we live.  The New Testament does not focus on holy things and doesn’t tell believers to do so either.  Holiness is more dynamic and puts us in relationship with God.  Holiness courses through our lives and is expanding the Church in baptism, the Eucharist, our growing in faith and love.   Theosis is our participation in God’s holiness.

Holiness does not get concentrated in things which we stand around to reverence or feel some closeness to God.  In the New Testament we don’t look to things to experience holiness, for holiness is to be present in our daily lives.

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We can look at a few passages from the New Testament and we get this sense that holiness is much more about us and what we are and what we are to do.  In each passage below the holiness word is emphasized.

Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth.  (john 17:7)

But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor 6:11)

May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thess 5:23)

Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.  (Heb 12:14)

and make holiness perfect in the fear of God. (2 Cor 7:1)

While God sanctifies us (makes us holy), obviously holiness is also something we can strive and something we can make perfect.  Holiness is not merely something God bestows on us, it is also something we can shape and develop in our own lives.  Holiness is thus a force in our lives, which is both given to us by God and shaped by our own lives and how we follow Christ.  God commands us to be holy!  It is something within our power to do.

Holiness as such is not some magic which makes “things” holy, but rather the very force in our lives which unites us to God.  Holiness is active in our hearts and minds – in our spirit, soul and body.  Holiness is not just for the soul, but it is for our entire being as humans and is to be present in every aspect of our humanity.  We show holiness in our lives not only in worship or in participating in the sacraments but also in stewardship, tithing, generosity, loving, forgiving, asking forgiveness, obeying Christ, being charitable, merciful, peacemakers and in all the ways we practice our discipleship.

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Orthodox often flock to where they believe holiness is – in an icon, in a monastery, in a church, in the Holy Fire.  The New Testament on the other hand points out that holiness is not so much to be sought out in things, but is to be lived in our hearts, souls, minds and bodies.  We can’t make holiness perfect in things – Holy Icons or Holy Fire – we can only perfect it in ourselves.

Caring for the Poor: Lending to God

If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous. Law came in, to increase the trespass; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.  (Romans 5:17-21)

Adam, Eve and Jesus
Adam, Eve and Jesus

In Western Christianity there has been endless debate about justification, especially between Reformers and the Roman Catholics but also between various Protestant denominations.  Righteousness and justice are grouped as synonymous terms, often interpreted in a juridical way.  But righteousness can also mean holiness more than legal justice, which seems to me how it is interpreted more in the Orthodox tradition.  Righteousness can also be equated with salvation.  When the first generation of Lutheran Reformers approached Orthodox Patriarch Jeremias to discuss theology, they changed the language in their documents to read “salvation by faith” rather than “justification by faith.”  They were savvy enough to realize this would sound more theological correct to the Orthodox.

Apparently at one time in Judaism, righteousness/ justice was also  used to mean almsgiving/ charity.  Certainly if one reads the New Testament substituting almsgiving for righteousness  we get a totally different view of God and salvation [Try it in the quote above from Romans 5:17-21)].  Biblical scholar Nathan Eubank writes:

“The Ancient rabbis used to tell the story of King Munbaz of Adiabene, a first-century C.E. convert to Judaism, who emptied his storehouses to feed the hungry during a time of famine.  The king’s brothers were outraged and demanded that the king explain why he would throw away the family’s great wealth.  In response, the king argued that by feeding the hungry he had acquired a greater, longer-lasting fortune.  He cited Psalm 89:15 to prove his point: ‘Justice (tsedeq) and judgment are the foundation of  your throne.’  The rabbis commonly understood ‘righteousness’ when it appears in the Hebrew bible to mean ‘almsgiving.’ Read in this light, the psalm seemed to promise that possessions given to the poor would earn treasure in heaven, under the very throne of God.

Jesus speaking with the rabbis
Jesus speaking with the rabbis

 King Munbaz explained: ‘My ancestors stored up treasures below, but I have stored up treasurers above . . . in a place where the hand cannot reach’ (Tosefta Peah 4.18).  According to the rabbis who recorded the tale, this Gentile king learned that the best way to prepare for the future is to give to the needy and be rewarded by God, if not in this life then certainly in the life to come.  The belief that God faithfully repays good deeds has deep roots in the biblical tradition, going back well before the birth of Christianity.  As Proverbs 19:17 puts it, ‘Whoever cares for the poor lends to the Lord, who will pay back the sum in full.‘”  (“The Repayment of Good Deeds in Matthew’s Sermon”, THE BIBLE TODAY, January/February 2017)

The notion that God receives every gift of alms we give to the poor and stores it up for us in heaven was widely believed and taught in the early church and is common sermon fare among the Cappodician fathers.   Whether or not they were familiar with this Jewish tradition, I don’t know, but obviously they came to the same interpretive conclusions about what the Scriptures taught about the importance of charity.

Sometimes philosophers work so hard to get a word to mean  only one thing, so that they can use that word in one and only one way.  Sometimes, to understand the Word of God, we have to move in a different direction, realizing the depth and layers of meaning found in a word or phrase.  Read again St. Paul in the text below putting in almsgiving/ charity where the text says righteous/righteousness.  We begin to hear another message about God which is consistent with the theology that God is love.

Jesus and Moses
Jesus and Moses

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.  (Romans 3:21-26)

The Sunday of All Saints (2015)

 

St. John Chrysostom (d. 407AD) in his sermon, “Afflictions of Man”, offers thoughts on why the saints of God suffer.   One might think that surely the saints, favored by God, would be spared normal human suffering.  Chrysostom, however, sees the suffering of saints as reminding us that they were human like us, not super-humans.   They are models of human behavior, not heroic gods.   Besides all of this, their suffering belies any criticism that the real goal of the saints was to be blessed by God in their earthly life.   The saints are not holy in order to benefit themselves in this world.

“The repeated bodily infirmities suffered by the Saints and the many temptation to which they were subjected should convince us that they were persons like us, advancing not through their own power, but through the grace of God. But the fact that they suffered by the laws of human nature prevented them from being treated by those around them as something other than normal humans, whose examples might be followed by other mortals. The affliction of the Saints also served to contradict those who claimed that their service to God was motivated by a promise of earthly prosperity. The experience of Job demonstrates this. The devil insinuated that Job was a paragon of virtue because he wished to retain the great wealth and happiness he and his family enjoyed. God then stripped Job of his belongings and subjected him to the most grievous disease and sorrow. Then He responded to the devil: ‘Job yet holds fast to his integrity.’ Because the Saints desired only to serve God, that service – in the midst of all travail, was reward enough.” (O Logos Publications, pp 5-6)

Holiness and Virtues

The English word “saint” is used to translate the Greek word “agios” which also means “holy.”   A saint is a holy person.   Because in English we commonly use different words for saint and holy we don’t always keep those concepts together in our minds.  The Holy Spirit and the Holy person share the same holiness.  The Holy Ones (the Saints) are sanctified by the Saint Spirit.   Saint = holy.    When we pray “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal…” this is the same word (agios) that we use for the saints.  So we could pray “Saint God, Saint Mighty, Saint Immortal…”  which might help us keep the connection between the English words saint and holy.

We can think a little bit more about what holiness is and what it is not:

“[…] holiness is not heroic feats of asceticism or virtue – exactly what the celebrity version of sanctity seems to insist. Rather, holiness has to do, is a relationship, with the Holy One and thus is connected to wholeness. Holiness, further, does not require the absence of sin and human qualities, eccentricities, phobias, sufferings – the substance of ordinary human life. Holiness is a struggle with the baggage of human existence, all the elements that make us who we are.”  (Michael Plekon, Hidden Holiness, p 42)

 The Saints are not superstars or celebrities, at least not as our modern media driven culture creates such personalities.   They are holy ones – the paparazzi would not be able to capture in photographs this holiness.  The Saints were often incredibly humble, often did not seek fame and public attention or public approval.  They served Christ not their own interests.  St. John the Forerunner said of Christ, “He must increase, I must decrease”  (John 3:30).  They are important as witnesses to Christ and because through them we come to Christ.     They are images of repentance, people by whom we can measure whether we are really following Christ, teachers of self denial.

For us holiness does equal godliness.  In Orthodoxy righteousness has more to do with holiness than with justice.  Holiness, righteousness and godliness are all ways of referring to God present in our lives, acting in and through us.

“Let the good deeds  you do imitate your profession; you profess godliness, so do what is pleasing to Him, that is, good deeds. What is this phrase ‘with good deeds’? He means the whole collection of virtues:

scorn of this world,

yearning for the world to come,

disdain for riches,

generosity to the poor,

modesty,

meekness,

pursuit of wisdom,

disposing our souls in peace and serenity,

not cringing before the glory of the present life, but keeping our gaze ever straining upward, so that we are ever anxious for the things of heaven and desire the glory hereafter.”     (St. John Chrysostom, Baptismal Instructions, p 37)

All Saints (2014)

“When the land bears a good harvest everyone rejoices, not just the farmers (for we all benefit from the earth’s produce); so the fruits which the saints bring forth for God through their virtue delight not only the Husbandman of souls, but all of us, being set before us for the common good and pleasure of our souls. During their earthly lives, all the saints are an incentive to virtue for those who hear and see them with understanding, for they are human icons of excellence, animated pillars of goodness, and living books, which teach us the way to better things.

Afterwards, when they depart this life, the benefit we gain from them is kept alive for ever through the remembrance of their virtues. By commemorating their noble deeds, we offer them that praise which, on one hand, we owe them for the good they did our ancestors, but which, on the other, is also fitting for us at the present time, on account of the help they give us now.”

(Saint Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, pp 220-221)

All Saints

Seeing is Believing

“… William Blake turned to a friend, who had never ventured out beyond the confines of his social and culturally circumscribed world and asked, while looking at the sun, ‘What do you see?’  The friend answered easily, ‘A yellow orb, of a certain size and presumably a certain distance from the earth, warming us.’

From his perch at the edge of the world, riding the back of an invisible dragon rising up from the abyss where I and Thou encounter one another, Blake responded with incandescent wonder,

‘I see the angelic hosts of heaven in chariots of fire singing, Holy, Holy, Holy art Thou O Lord God Sabbaoth.'”

(Stephen Muse, BEING BREAD, p 183)