Holiness Revisited

The usual word for "holiness" in the New Testament is hAGIOS ('HAH-gee-ohs"), and the usual explanation of it is 'set apart'. That is true enough, but there's a dimension to hAGIOS I'd like to explore.

From the very beginnings of Christianity there has been a tension surrounding 'asceticism' — physically denying oneself by abstaining from food, alcohol, sex, and so forth. We see this tension in the Gospels:

"John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and they came and said to Him, 'Why do John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?'" Mark 2:28


For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon!’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at this glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and of sinners!’ Luke 7:33-34

So apparently the disciples of John the Baptist fasted and Jesus did not. The question of asceticism continued to play a major role in the history of Christianity. A grand example of this would be the Desert Fathers (and Mothers), early Christian hermits, ascetics, and monks who lived mainly in the Egyptian deserts beginning around the third century AD. And of course the entire monastic movement: monks and nuns living ascetic lives in convents and monasteries.

As a thought experiment, however, let's use the fictional organization "The Grand Puhbahs of Hoople, North Dakota". You might say: "Whatever the Grand Puhbahs say, I'm going to do that!" Or you might say: "Whatever the Grand Puhbahs say, I'm going to do the exact opposite!"

In both cases, the Grand Puhbahs are dictating my thinking: either by me automatically agreeing with whatever they say, or me automatically rejecting whatever they say. Both ways, the Grand Puhbahs are in control of my thinking.

This stance is not far-fetched at all: in our society these days we're seeing a lot of "If the Republicans are for it, I'm automatically for it (or against it)," or "If the Democrats are for it, I'm automatically for it (or against it)". Other examples abound.

And I have to wonder if there's a certain element of this in Christian asceticism too: if 'the World'/Society does something, I'm going to do the exact opposite. (Not all ascetics think like this.)

But there's another approach: and that is for me to consider each of the Grand Puhbah's ideas, and accept/reject each on its own merits. In other words, independence of mind, to think for myself.

We see this with Jesus in the Gospels. On the one hand He said that the Jewish Law didn't go nearly far enough:

You heard that it was said to the ancients: You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be liable for judgment. But I say to you that everyone [being] angry with his brother will be liable for judgment. Matt 5:21

Meanwhile Jesus was regularly accused of violating Jewish Law. For example:

In that opportune-time Jesus went through [a] corn-field on the Sabbath, and his disciples hungered, and began to be plucking the ears and eating. 2 But the Pharisees having seen [this] said to him: Behold your disciples do that which is not allowed to be doing on the Sabbath. 3 But he said to them: Do you not know what David did, when he and those with him hungered? 4 How he entered into the house of God and they ate the shew-bread, which was not allowed for him nor those with him to eat, but only for the priests alone? 5 Or do you not know in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are blameless? Matt 12:1ff

This idea that 'holiness' includes 'independence of mind' sheds interesting light on Jesus' cryptic comment in John 3 (note that in Greek, the word translated 'spirit' is PNEUMA, which also means 'wind'):

The wind/spirit blows where it wants, and you do not know whence it is coming or where it is going. In this manner is everyone who has been born from spirit. John 3:8

So I would argue that when I align myself with God, that doesn't mean automatically rejecting whatever 'the World'/Society says. Sometimes God and Society align, other times not so much. Parsing that is the challenge!

In the case of holy spaces (like churches) and holy objects (like a chalice used for Communion) — these are physical examples illustrating to me what it means to be holy in my Journey. Churches still have walls and roofs — like secular buildings. Churches might have a 'holy cup' used for Communion, but we use 'secular' cups all the time for our coffee and margaritas. It's just that a church, and the objects inside, are designed and used for an independent purpose — a church looks different from an apartment complex, and a chalice for communion looks different from my coffee cup.

So I say:

  • Advertisers have become very good at manipulating our subconscious minds. To the extent that you learn to recognize their techniques and resist them — that is 'holiness'.
  • When you can recognize that just because you generally don't agree with someone, they still can have ideas worth considering — that is 'holiness'.
  • When others are panicking all around you, and you can stay calm and keep your wits about you — that is 'holiness'.