A Heritage of Holiness by Ed Burns

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God. . . . Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.

– 1 John 3:1–3

 Many years ago, when I was a newly assigned assistant at St. Anne’s in Devon, Connecticut, I used to go from door to door throughout the parish “taking the census.” Actually, this was a ploy on my part. “Taking the census” enabled me to meet many of our parishioners on an individual basis, something which I tried to do in each of my parish assignments.

On one occasion, I knocked on the door of a parishioner whom I had not previously met. When the owner of the house, a middle-aged woman, opened the door and saw me standing there in my Roman collar and black suit, she became immediately and visibly upset and extremely nervous. When I introduced myself as Father Burns from St. Anne’s Parish, she replied in a voice trembling with anxiety, “Well . . . well . . . how should we talk with each other? Like regular people?” This incident illustrates so well the great divide that many people have in their minds between the sacred and the secular, between what we regard as the holy and the realm of the “everyday,” between what someone once described as the “God District” and the district of the world at large.

Today, for the Christian believer, there can no longer be a separate “God District”—if there ever was one. From the moment of the Incarnation, the moment when the Word became flesh and dwelled among us, God has united the world of the transcendent and the world of the mundane in a mysterious, sacramental bond that can never again be broken. Our God is now Emmanuel—God with us.

We remember this bond in a very special way during the month of November when we celebrate the Feast of All Saints. In her book Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints, theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson calls this “a feast of splendid nobodies.” In this same book she speaks of the universality of God’s holiness: “Since God’s mercy flows into every crevasse of the broken world, offering forgiveness to every sinful heart, all are called to blessedness.”

Not only are all of us called to blessedness; the Feast of All Saints is a reminder that all of us have already been blessed with the holiness of God. This blessedness, this sharing in God’s own divine life, became our heritage at the moment of the Incarnation. In that moment the universe itself was transfigured and became the bearer of God’s holiness, and it is this transfigured universe that the church recognizes and celebrates each time a person is welcomed into the communion of saints through the sacrament of baptism. In living out this sacrament, which is the work and vocation of a lifetime, we are brought ever deeper into an awareness of the great and holy mystery that encompasses our entire lives.

Johnson describes holiness as “not in the first instance a moral perfection, but a participation in the glory (doxa) and love (agape) of God, given freely without previous merit or accomplishment on anyone’s part. God is holy,” she continues, “and people share in this through the grace of Christ, in the Spirit.” Holiness, therefore, is not something we can earn or merit by our good works. It is a gift freely and generously given to us. Such a comprehension of holiness should immediately dispel any “holier-than-thou” or judgmental attitudes on our part. If anything, our response to an awareness and recognition of this awesome gift, this participation in God’s own divine life, should render us profoundly humbled and filled with gratitude for our good fortune.

A second characteristic of holiness is that it is freely available to anyone open to the power of the Holy Spirit. There is no such thing as a “graded system” of holiness, a kind of “trickle-down theory” of holiness, whereby we measure our closeness to God based on the rank or privilege we hold in the Christian community—or within any religious community, for that matter.

In the course of the church’s long history, there has occurred a shift—a misleading and unfortunate distortion, in fact—regarding the “place” where holiness is to be found within the Christian community. Originally, the entire community was regarded as the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. Over time, individual Christians took upon themselves different roles and leadership positions within the structure of the church for the sake of the community at large. Paul describes this in his First Letter to the Corinthians:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. . . . All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses (1 Cor. 12:4–6, 11)

Although there were many diverse charisms of responsibility and leadership being carried out, it was the same Spirit, the same essential holiness, that was recognized as enlivening the whole community and being cultivated by each member of the community within the early church. The existence of various ministries and paths of life did not overshadow the fundamental reality that all the members of the church possessed equal dignity because they shared in the same Holy Spirit.

With the gradual expansion of the church throughout the Greco-Roman world, and the increasing expansion of Christian membership, these original charisms of responsibility and leadership began to require—necessarily and understandably—some form of stable organization and order; what we might call nowadays a “holy order.” Following the decree of Constantine in the fourth century, when the emperor recognized Christianity as the official religion of the empire, this holy order began to mirror more and more the political and patriarchal structure of the empire. This process, carried on over the ensuing centuries, eventually “hardened,” so to speak, into the hierarchical structures of the churches of today—structures that are being challenged and scrutinized in our era.

More and more, we hope, challenges to the hierarchies of our churches will embolden individuals to recover and claim for themselves their original heritage of dignity and holiness, conferred upon them by the grace of Christ and in the Spirit. In a healthy Christian community there will always be some form of structure, some form of holy order recognized and honored by the membership. But there surely ought not to be any elitist mentality regarding the spiritual life, nor any “code of holiness” based on rank or privilege.

A third and perhaps most important characteristic of holiness is this: The holiness of God is a profoundly relational term that refers to God’s involvement in the world through his creative and redeeming care. In the Scriptures, God’s holiness is never described apart from his divine graciousness and compassion. Too often our concepts and images of God emphasize his otherness, his separateness, his transcendent nature. Thinking of and imagining God in this way removes him from our earthbound, human experience. But if we examine both the Old and the New Testaments carefully, we will realize that this is a profound distortion of the God who reveals himself to his people precisely through acts of saving, rescuing, healing, and redeeming. These actions on God’s part become the very form in which divine, transcendent holiness makes itself known.

An integral and genuine Christian holiness, then, requires of the disciples of Jesus a passionate engagement with the world of ordinary human experience and a zeal for achieving in that world works of justice, healing, mercy, forgiveness, compassion, and truthfulness—qualities that will be reflected in our personal relationships with each other, in our communities, and in our political and religious structures. The Feast of All Saints should be a vivid reminder for us of the deep connections that exist among all peoples of the earth, rooted in the mystery of God’s holiness ever present in the heart of the universe.

Ed Burns is a licensed marital and family therapist living in Litchfield, Connecticut, where he maintains a private practice treating individuals, couples, and families.

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