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.

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St. Paul and the Prophet Isaiah

My previous blog, The Prophet Isaiah and the Righteous Simeon, shows how in the Orthodox Tradition Scriptures are interpreted.  A hymn from the Feast of the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple shows the integration of Old and New Testament events and how through the Gospel Christ is seen, made visible, in the Old Testament.  The prophecy of Isaiah is shown to be a prophecy of Christ, even if Isaiah could not understand completely what he was seeing or describing.   The prophet’s words in Isaiah 6 make sense, he describes what he was permitted to see and experience.  However, as the festal hymn weaves the events together, the tapestry is made clear.  The pieces of the mosaic are finally arranged so that the portrait hidden in them is revealed.  Isaiah sees a burning coal taken from God’s heavenly altar by a pair of tongs carried by an angel and he is saved from death when his sins are forgiven as the burning coal touches his lips.  We can see already an image of the Eucharist – receiving the incarnate God in the Body and Blood of Christ.  The divine fire saves us and takes away our sins.

The festal hymn of the Meeting of the Lord shows us that the tongs and burning coal were foreshadowing the Virgin carrying Christ into the temple.  As Isaiah is saved from death though he sees God, so too Simeon the Righteous sees the salvation of God and is released from all fear of death –  seeing God is salvation, not death.

That the writings of Isaiah permeated the thinking of the New Testament authors is well known and can be seen in how frequently he is quoted or referenced in the New Testament.   The extent of Isaiah’s words permeating the Orthodox vision of salvation is obvious in the festal hymns of the Church.   It is not simply that the theologians and hymnographers quote the Prophet Isaiah, his imagery is found embedded in the liturgy, icons, sacraments and theology of the Church.  We saw that in the previous blog, and it is noted even in the writings of Protestant biblical scholars.

“Paul seems to have had a special interest in Isaiah. In the seven letters generally acknowledged as authentic, Paul quotes Isaiah 31 times (out of approximately 89 OT quotations overall).[…] That Paul attributed particular significance to the prophecies of Isaiah, and that he found some portions of this prophetic book to be particularly useful in his interpretation and defense of the gospel. The reasons for this are not difficult to fathom. Isaiah, more clearly than any other OT book, links the promise of the redemption and restoration of Israel to the hope that Israel’s God will also reveal his mercy to the Gentiles and establish sovereignty over the whole earth.[…] Paul had read and pondered the scroll of Isaiah as a whole, over the years of his apostolic ministry, and developed a sustained reading of it as God’s revelation of ‘the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith’ (Rom 16:25-26).”   (Richard B. Hays, The Conversion of the Imagination, pp 25-27)

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)

Holiness Alive: The Saints

“Astounding the whole world with their unprecedented preaching of the risen Christ, of God who revealed Himself to men in the flesh and again ascended to His heavenly Kingdom, and sowing the seed of new faith, new life and creation, they passed from this world. And only then did the world begin to catch fire: to burn from the seed they had sown, the words they had spoken and the footprints they had left. Peoples that had persecuted them were scattered over the face of the earth; kingdoms that had stood against them disintegrated into dust; houses that had not received them fell into ruin; great men and sages who had tormented them found shame and despair, and perished miserable. And the seed they had sown sprouted and blossomed; the Church rose from their blood, on the ruins of the violent and false works of men’s hands; those who received them were glorified; those who believed in them and followed them were saved. Oh, how abundantly the Lord nourishes His servants! How abundantly He supplies His faithful sons! How abundantly He, as a Commander, arms all his soldiers!” (St. Nikolai Velimirovic in Homilies: Volume 2, pg. 2)

Holiness: God Present in the Mundane

“The holiness to which the Church is called is not a matter of escape from the mundane course of human events, from time, or from everything that is not explicitly Christian. The Eucharist is an incarnational meal in which the risen Lord becomes present in the rude stuff of this life, even as he became present in human history through the womb of the Theotokos. The line between the mundane and the holy is here erased because it is precisely as the ordinary, whether a baby or bread and wine, that the Son of God comes to us. The connection to moral theology should be obvious. God claims the physical and mundane things of life as His own in the incarnation. The mystery of the Incarnate Word as fully God and fully human shows that every bit of human nature has been claimed by God in Jesus Christ. A continued participation in that process of claiming occurs when Christ becomes present to us in the Eucharist, when we sacramentally take His body and blood into our body and blood.” (Philip LeMasters PhD, Towards a Eucharistic Vision of Church, Family, Marriage & Sex, pgs. 19-20)

A Christian Is Being A Member in the One Body of Christ

“Life ‘in Christ’ is clearly not just a one-to-one relationship, but one that binds individual believers together into a single community. Christians have been made members of a single family by their baptism in Christ. Because they are all ‘sons of God’, Paul tells the Galatians, ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal. 3:26-8).   Elsewhere, he likens this community of believers to a body, whose welfare depends on the contribution made by individual members (Rom. 12:3-13; 1 Cor. 12:4-31).

He also refers to the Christian community as a temple, and since the temple was regarded as God’s earthly dwelling, the image is an apt one: they are God’s temple because God’s Spirit lives within them, and if God’s Spirit lives in them, they must be holy (1 Cor. 3:16-17, 2 Cor. 6:16-18). All these images – family, body, temple – imply life, fellowship and growth, rather than an organized structure.” (Morna D. Hooker, Paul: A Beginners Guide, pgs.  132-133)

Holy = Saint

While in English we use separate words – holy and saint – in Greek these worlds both translate to the one word “agios”. We should remember that saint and holy are the same word.  Saint John = Holy John.  Holy Spirit = Saint Spirit.  Holy Ones = Saints.  The saint receives holiness from the Holy Spirit.  Without the Holy Spirit, there are no holy ones (saints).

“‘The patriarch Enoch was a shoemaker; with every stitch by which he joined the lower leather of a shoe to the upper leather, he united the Glory that is below with the Glory that is above.’ This ancient rabbinical Jewish saying represents a vision in which holiness is a matter of connecting the ordinary matter of earth with its depths in the life of God. This saint is not primarily the high achiever of the moral life, the honors graduate in discipleship, but the person in whom the depths of the ordinary become visible. The face of the saint is just as the tradition of Orthodox icon painting conceives it – a face that is unmistakably distinctive and human, yet ‘thinned out’ so as to let the light through, the light that is found in the deep background of the picture.”  (Rowan Williams in Hidden Holiness by Michael Plekon, pg. vii)

The Saints: Examples of the Gospel

“Perhaps more than anything else the lives of the Saints (and of the elders in this book) provide an ‘interpretation’ of Christ’s Gospel, ‘written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in table of stone, but in fleshly tables of the heart’ (2 Cor. 3:3). That which is of greatest importance in these lives are not so much the details of each llife, but rather the spirit that breathes in them, which shaped them into precious vessels of the Holy Spirt. These lives bear witness to the transformation of man that is possible, when the Christian gives himself wholly over to the will of God. As Elder Sophrony of Essex has written, it is not arbitrary asceticism or the possession of supernatural gifts that constitute genuine Christian spiritual life, but rather obedience to the will of God. Each person has his own capabilities and his own path to tread; the keeping of Christ’s commandments, however, remains a constant.”   (Herman A. Middleton, Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit: The Lives & Counsels of Contemporary Elders of Greece, pg.22)

Saints of the 20th Century

Church Members: You are the Holy Ones of God

Some of God's Holy Ones

In Acts 9:32-42, Peter visits the Christians at Lydda – in Acts the Christians are called “saints.”   “Saints” is another way of saying “holy ones.”  Unfortunately in the English language we have separated the idea of the saint from one who is holy.  We say in English, “the Holy Spirit” and “Saint Paul.”    The Greek word we translate as “Holy” and “Saint” is actually the same word.   To help us keep the connection we sometimes need to think in terms of “the Saint Spirit” and the “Holy Paul.”    Or, we might pray, “Saint God, Saint Mighty, Saint immortal, have mercy on us.”   It sounds totally wrong in English but that is because we have two separate words (saint and holy) that we are using to translate the one Greek word (agios). 

When we minister to God’s “saints” – our fellow church members – we serve God Himself.

Let no one say to me, How can I love God whom I do not see?…You do not see God, but you see created realities, you see his works, heaven and earth and sea…You do not see God, but you see his servants, his friends – I mean, holy men who enjoy his trust. Attend on them, and you will have no little easing of your desire; in the case of human beings we normally love not only our friends but also those loved by them.”      (St. John Chrysostom, Old Testament Homilies, Volume 3, pg. 74)

By referring to his fellow Christians as saints,  the Holy Peter, is reminding all of us that holiness is to be a normative part of the Christian’s life.  Holiness does belong to God and to those saints whom we honor in the icons of our churches.  It is supposed to be also a normal element of the life of every Christian.  Christian holiness includes imitating our Lord and Master Jesus Christ who came  not to be served but to serve others (Matthew 20:28).

“Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them:

You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy”

(Leviticus 19:2).

The Cult of Saints and the Holy Parishioner

Fr. HiddenHolinessMichael Plekon in his book HIDDEN HOLINESS offers us ideas of personal holiness which steer far away from sensationalism or spectacular displays of people of great renown.   He offers examples of holiness which might be better termed “the Kingdom of God breaking into this world” through the lives of devout Christians who have not grabbed the headlines on the nightly news.   As Plekon expresses it: 

“What I tried to show throughout is that the ‘cult of celebrity’ will not soon go away.  Our culture thrives on the ‘lifestyles of the rich and famous’ and those of the spectacularly saintly.”

Plekon turns away from the stilted hagiographies with their stylized stories of spectacular miracles to look  into the lives of men and women who embraced Christ but will not be written about in the lives of saints.  His very point is that in embracing the more “cult of celebrity” ideas of sainthood, we miss seeing the holiness all around us.  We set up ideas of holiness which are inimitable and then wonder why we lack examples in hagiography of moms and dads and laborers and normal kinds of people.  The cult of celebrity when mixed with the cult of saints leaves us with spectacular stories which have little to do with our daily lives.  We might find such stories as great examples of God intervening in the world in the most fantastic ways, but then find little connection to what we are actually experiencing in our own daily lives.  Holiness thus becomes the stuff of heavenly superheroes who belong to a pagan pantheon rather than what each and every Christian is called to live in their daily walk with Christ.

“We’re constantly invited to live our lives through the carefully packaged lives of celebrities, even people who are famous only for performing some infamously stupid or vulgar act… Holy realism rejects these false images of the world and human life, and it reminds us of who we really are… Holy realism asserts that life does matter, how we live it matters.  It’s not willing to accept… that the endless daily drudgery is all there is to life.  Holy realism takes a stand for awe and wonder and beauty even in the midst of the ordinary daily activities.”  (Kathleen Norris)

 As Roman Catholic social activist Dorothy Day notes, the Christian life as we experience it is not always making a choice  between the cosmic good and evil in which the fate of the world depends on what we do.   Much more common is we are making small choices in which we decide to love someone by denying ourselves something quite simple and mundane.   We take up the cross daily to follow Christ, not just once in some grand display of splendor.

20ThCent“Archbishop Robichaud, in his book Holiness for All, emphasizes the fact that the choice is not between good and evil for Christians – that it is not in this way that one proves one’s love… but between good and better.  In other words, we must give up over and over again even the good things of the world, to choose God…” 

Holiness is connected to our praying daily, forgiving someone, giving generously to someone, admitting we are wrong and asking forgiveness, turning away from our selfish self interest in order to serve and love someone else, doing the next right thing.

For whatever reason holiness for much of Christian history ended up being a merging of the cult of saints with the cult of celebrity.   This is not just a modern thing.   The lives of saints in Orthodoxy are filled with spectacular and miraculous events that are said to have happened to the saints.   Yet, holiness does not belong only to heaven or only to superheroes.  It is the stuff of which the Christian life is made.  Holiness is part of the life of each baptized Christian, of each communicant, of each confessant, of each person who repents, of each who prays, gives and forgives.  Plekon’s book reminds us of this truth which ultimately helps restore holiness to the life of each of us and to make us realize that we are to be the holy ones of God.  As the priest claims at every Divine Liturgy, “Holy things for the Holy Ones.”  We each are called to this holiness and we are to be the holy ones of God.  

And saints are not just to be displayed on our walls as icons, they are to be examples of how to live our daily lives as Christians  in the the 21st Century in our homes, neighborhoods, places of business or employment, ball parks, grocery stores and vacation resorts.