What does the term “holy” mean to you? Do you ever think about it? After all for any concept to have value, we need to have a firm grasp of what it means do we not? Unfortunately there is a disturbing trend among Christians to have a great many terms which – while we use them really often – remain foggy and rather undefined (at least in practical terms), rendering them pretty much pointless. My friend and fellow blogger TPluckyT has started a great series a while ago called GodQuest, chronicling his personal journey of making oft used Christianese terms like “finding God” and “having a personal relationship with God” more tangible and meaningful and that has inspired me to re-examine some of the words I might be using unthinkingly. For some – if not most – Christians, the word “holy” means something vague, maybe to do with being good or halo’s or angels and church. For others it refers to some kind of incredible standard of perfection that God expects from us yet only He can be. For most of us though it’s really hard to pin down exactly what it’s supposed to look like in our lives.
Now for this I don’t really blame the church. Anyone who regularly attends church must have at some point heard a sermon on holiness and there is a very high likelihood that somewhere during that service the preacher mentioned that the word “holy” in the original language literally means “set aside” or “set apart”. Yet due to perhaps a lot of mental clutter and preconceived ideas, this never really sunk in for me. Yet I found that when I managed to wipe away the vague notions and preconceived ideas about holiness and started thinking about it in terms of meaning “set apart” or “made to be different”, a lot of the Bible which previously made little sense started making perfect sense. For instance, so much of the Torah rules about food and dress and behavior just seems weird and pointless to our 21st century ears. But consider this, God chose to use a group of people – the Israelites – to be his messengers. For this reason He made them Holy and gave His Law to keep them that way. Now if you think of holiness as some kind of perfection, most of the dietary, clothing, sacrificial and behavioral laws make little to no sense! BUT – when you think of holy as being made different or set apart, it makes total sense. Eating different, living different, behaving different and dressing different doesn’t make you good or better or perfect or in any way superior but it certainly does set you apart and keeps you from assimilating and becoming just like everyone else. I think this provides a very practical explanation as to why despite countless banishments and millennia of cruel persecution the Jewish people have never been destroyed nor become lost in the sea of humanity – through all the ages they stayed apart, different, in a word: Holy.
While for many modern Christians a term like “holy” may be a vague, ethereal thing, in Biblical times “holy” meant something sensory and visceral. Holiness was something you could see and smell and hear and touch. This almost alien concept was first brought to my attention when I read CS Lewis’ book “Till we have faces”, which retold the ancient myth of Cupid and Psyche and through it managed to explore some very Christian issues by using a completely pagan setting. Something that struck me was how the main character was always frightened by the high priest and the temple of their goddess because it smelled so holy. Put yourself in the shoes of any character in the Bible for a moment (especially in the Old Testament) and think about it for a moment. What would your sensory experience of holiness have been? Holiness smelled like blood and smoke and incense and burnt flesh, holiness sounded like loud music and sacrifices sensing their immanent death, holiness looked like death and rivers of blood flowing from an altar. Holiness could be dark and scary and intimidating. But maybe holiness could also look like family and community and smell like mom’s kosher cooking and sound like prayer and scripture being read together. Holiness could be frightening, holiness could be comforting, it could feel like pain and persecution or it could feel like home and belonging. My point is that holiness wasn’t vague and out there, holiness was something real, something you could see and live and something that could be embodied. As it happened there were some people called upon to take this embodiment to the next level – the Nazarites.
Nazarites (Hebrew nazir Elohim, "one separated to God") existed as living pictures of holiness. They had to stand out even among those already called to stand out. According to Numbers 6:1-21 there were 3 things that set them apart (made them holy in other words):
- Total abstinence from wine (not even grapes or raisins were allowed) or strong drink – considering that wine was like the coca-cola of the day, not drinking wine really made you different!
- Refraining from cutting your hair – we always associate this part with Samson, but take a moment to consider how different this would have made you. Everyone trimmed their hair, it just makes sense if you live in a hot desert environment! Someone with long wild hair would really have stood out a lot!
- Avoidance of contact with the dead – this included the bodies of your closest relatives and loved ones. Some commentators even suggest that this implied that Nazarites couldn’t eat meat.
If you want proof you need not look further than one of the most famous Nazarites of them all – John the Baptist. When he preached he didn’t tell people that they needed to be more like him. He did however tell them to be different. For instance when tax collectors came to him and asked what they needed to do, he didn’t tell them to become vegetarian teetotalers in the desert. Instead he told them to be a different kind of tax collector, fair and honest (unlike the norm at the time). Likewise when soldiers asked what they needed to do he didn’t tell them to become long haired hippies who never came near dead things. Instead he told them to become a different kind of soldier – honest men, protectors instead of exploiters of the powerless.
See “holy” might mean “different”, but it does not mean different just for the sake of being different. If “holy” means “set apart” then the implication is that one is set apart for a reason. There is a greater purpose to “being holy” than simply “being good” or “being separated”. Being holy is about living in such a way that you remind the world around you that there is another, better way to live. Or as Joss Whedon put it:
“We live as though the world were as it should be, to show it what it can be”
So what does “being holy” mean to you? What does it mean to me? This is the 21st century after all and while the message of holiness must remain the same, what does that mean in a practical sense today? What kind of different are we supposed to be, as Christians and what should it look like? There are the obvious things of course – we should live moral and ethical lives – maybe today more than ever that is part of being “holy/different”. But should there be more? If so, what would that be? What does "holy" look, sound, taste and smell like to you?