What’s Up with Holiness?

I’ve always found the word “holy” to be a little strange.

I usually hear it describe other nouns. Like when someone says “Holy cow” or “holy moly” or “super holy mother of all crazy freak monster trucks….”

Or maybe when it refers to my coat pocket and the reason I keep losing pens.

Perhaps you’ve heard it used when someone says they are “holier-than-thou.” These are judgmental individuals. We don’t find people who value “holiness” to be a lot of fun, and they are generally dull at parties. Holy people are the ones always abstaining and raising their eyebrows when you’ve said a cuss word to make a point or had your third or fourth glass of wine.

Well, nobody else was drinking that glass. It was a 1985 Pomerol and needed to be quaffed.

It’s true that holiness is an important part of spirituality. But it is not about our private pieties, those feelings that allow some to feel closer to God than others. Holiness is not a weapon to be used against the unholy or profane. The world has too many people trying to go to war with the “unholy.” There are too many people who think we could establish what unholiness is for all time and in all places and destroy it. As if.

The root impulse of holiness, however, is to separate and to distinguish. One object or event goes in one place; another goes in another place. Holiness is at the root of any enterprise that tries to name and categorize. It is a way of understanding the world, a way of sorting.

The new revelation in Jesus Christ is that he has changed what gets distinguished. What is formerly holy: especially sacred violence or those systems that make some people better than others, is revealed to be … human. That’s all. Everything becomes de-divinized. In some sense, Jesus’ holiness is a secular, pragmatic holiness. It may be compelling; it may be lovely, but it moves as we move.

One person remarked to me, when reconstructing our new space, that now we could experience the “holy.”

I was a little taken aback, but I knew what he meant. Holiness is not merely a description of our own emotional or physical purity, but our ability to hold together being both on the edge of the familiar while also taking a great adventure. And the space represents an adventure we are taking together as a community. We are facing each other, and we are closer together. And we have no idea what’s going to happen. Frightening? Yes. Exciting? Also, yes.

Holiness is like a place where we are on the precarious edge, as if we are at the top of a waterfall or the highest point of a rollercoaster. We have closed our options in one part of our life, and turned to look forward to another.

It is dangerous and frightening, because when we are in the presence of the holy, life and death are at stake.

Perhaps this is why we experience holiness at the top of a mountain or at the edge of the ocean. We understand how fragile our lives are when we are at the edge of the earth’s immensity: mountains and oceans can kill us with a fatal step.

Perhaps it is also why we experience holiness at the birth of a child, or when someone is about to breathe their last breath. It is also why witnessing two people hold hands while they are jumping to their death, when people hold on to love even as they meet their tragic end, we are in the presence of the holy.

Holiness is being on the edge of the precipice, when we are aware of the balance between what makes a life, and what we have lost. It can be most present when we are witnessing a terrible tragedy.

Or it can also be a feast.