By: Rev. Paul Scalia
Perhaps last Sunday’s reading struck you as unusual. It was not the customary exhortation or story we might expect. That passage from Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 1:1-3) is a simple greeting, nothing more. We would have been content with something more efficient. “Dear Corinthians,” perhaps. Maybe “Dear Sirs” or “To Whom it may concern.” Saint Paul does something different. He takes time to identify himself, present his credentials, describe the Corinthians, and — finally — greet them. It is no mere greeting but also a description. In particular it gives a definition of Christians: that is, those “who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy” (1 Cor 1:2).
Saint Paul intends this as description primarily of “the church of God that is in Corinth.” But it holds true for Christians in every time and place. It reminds us of who we are and how we ought to live, of where we came from and where we are going, of what has been accomplished and what remains to be done. And central to all this is holiness. Indeed, for Saint Paul that seems to be the basic identity for a Christian.
But what does it mean to be holy? Holiness is essential to who we are, but also fraught with danger. It is a concept open to tragic misunderstanding and distortion. It has had — and still has — its fair share of phonies. So it would be good to consider what holiness is…what it means for us to be both made holy and called to be holy.
The basic meaning of holiness is separateness, or otherness. This is at the heart of ancient Israel’s concept of holiness. The Holy One — the Lord — was separate from the world. This distinguished Him from other gods. They were not separate but belonged to some town, nation or region. The Lord, while of course the God of Israel, also transcends the world and all worldly descriptions of Him. Even the name He entrusts to Moses — I am Who am — does not so much reveal Him as describe His “otherness.” He cannot be confined. We cannot grasp or comprehend Him completely.
We usually equate holiness with moral goodness. While these two things are clearly linked, there is a distinction. The words Holy, Holy, Holy do not intend a positive moral judgment about God. Rather, they express the reality that He is beyond our ability to comprehend or control. He is wholly other.
God’s otherness should heighten our amazement and wonder that God became man — like us in all things but sin. Even when the Lord enters the world in our human nature, however, He remains Other. Jesus experiences the greatest suffering and descends to the darkest regions of our world (and beyond). But He is not confined to or bound by them. Precisely because He is wholly Other, He can draw close to us in our misery. No illness or disease, no persecution or humiliation, not even death, can hold Him. Thus He can enter every nook and cranny of human suffering and redeem it. He can touch the leper, eat with tax collectors and prostitutes, descend to the dead — and instead of being engulfed in them He redeems them with His presence.
Intuition confirms what our Jewish roots teach. We know that someone holy — not just pious or observant but genuinely holy — is not embroiled in the vanity and pettiness of this world. Somehow that person remains, well, apart from all of that. His thoughts, words, and actions are formed not by this world but by an Other. This does not mean he is aloof. The saint draws near to man’s greatest sufferings and poverties…all the while remaining untouched by them. He can bring light to others without in any way reducing his own. And that already should give us some sense of what we ought to be.
Next week: Holy, Holy, Whole (Holiness as Wholeness)