“Be holy, for I, Yahweh your God, am holy” appears five times in the book of Leviticus, while Peter in his letter exhorts his readers, “As he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct” and “Be holy for he is holy.” (1Pet.1-13-6). The angel Gabriel announces to Mary that the child to be born of her “will be holy” and shortly afterwards at when visiting her cousin Elizabeth she declared that God’s name is “holy”. The psalmist bids us in psalms 29.2 and 96.9 to “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” as does the editor of Chronicles (1Chro.16.29). Paul conveyed that “the temple of God is holy” meaning our bodies. (1Cor3.17)
So what does “holy” mean scripturally? There are three meanings: 1. to be set apart; 2. to be separated from the profane; 3. to be consecrated to God. Yet the three meanings are intricately threaded.
One cannot read the Old Testament without being aware that “holy” and “holiness” are part of YHWH’s design for His people. The Hebrew race was called to be set apart from the other races from the time of Moses. “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God” (Deut. 7.6,14.2, 21). YHWH had freed them from bondage in Egypt to be His chosen people who would consecrate their lives to Him by following His commandments. These people were to set apart a particular day, what came to be known as the Sabbath to worship God. They were to free themselves of any profanity before this and consecrate their time purely to worship YHWH.
Both Exodus and Leviticus clearly indicated that their God directed a separate structure for this worship to occur. In Israel’s early history this was the tent, but later this became the Temple in the time of Solomon. Within the temple the sanctuary or “holy of holies” was set aside from the rest of the structure, and it could only be approached by Aaron and his descendants. The ministry too was set apart - priests taken from the tribe of Levite could officiate at the burnt, peace and cereal offerings. When performing their duties priests also wore separate garments for these rituals. When animals were sacrificed such as on the Day of Atonement (Kippur) they too had to be holy, that is, without blemish as. On this most solemn day of repentance and reconciliation only the High Priest entered into “the holy of holies” where one goat was sacrificed upon the altar since blood “is the seat of life that makes atonement (Lev.17.11) and the other was sent out into the wilderness bearing the sins of the people. In what is known as the Holiness Code (Lev. Chs.17-26) dictated how the chosen race was to stay holy in their everyday family life. It directed what they ate and how it was prepared. For example blood was always seen as a symbol of life, and therefore all blood must be drained and then covered with earth before the flesh was cooked(Lev. 17.14). Holiness must also be shown how one behaved towards one’s neighbour and the alien (you shall love the alien as yourself (Lev.19.17). The bottom line in all things was “consecrate yourself … and be holy (Lev.20.7).
It does not take too much imagination to see how the Church adapted the Old Testament sense of being holy. One only has to read Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians to see how he instructed the early Christians on these matters just as the priests had done under the Old Covenant. Christians were reminded that their bodies were “holy” as the Holy Spirit dwelt therein, and so they had to live pure and chaste lives, often in marked contrast to their pagan brothers and sisters. They were also expected to have a dignified demeanour when present at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper and “let all things be done decently and in order” (1Cor.3.16, 6.20, 11. 17-20,14. 40).
At the Annunciation the archangel Gabriel announced that the one to be born of Mary would be holy. Her Son would be set apart from others for He alone is without sin. Mark refers to Him as “the holy one of God” (Mk.1.24). Jesus consecrated His life to His Father and to do His will. In Christ’s holiness He revealed a new relationship that God has with His people. It is the new covenant in which we too shall share in our baptism.
Taking this a step further it is also clear how we, baptized into the death of the Lord Jesus Christ, in this twenty-first century are to set themselves apart from all that is defiled according to God’s law and consecrate their lives to God. We are citizens of the kingdom of heaven who worship our God in the beauty of holiness in His building that is set aside for that purpose, not unlike the tent or temple. When we enter our church we are indeed treading on holy ground. As Psalmist expressed it:
O come, let us worship and bow down. let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!
and we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand. ( Ps. 95. 6-7 and from the Invitatory – the beginning of the Morning Office).
Furthermore every time we participate in the Eucharist we acknowledge the holiness of our Trinitarian God in the words of the Gloria , “for you alone are the holy one,” and at the Sanctus when we acknowledge our God as “holy, holy, holy”. These words are based on Isaiah’s vision in the temple of the Lord sitting upon the throne surrounded by an angelic choir which praised God’s holiness antiphonally with their “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of Hosts”. A similar cry is taken up by them in heaven again before the throne as He alone is worthy “to receive glory, honour and power” (Is. 6.1-3, Rev. 4.6-11. Our liturgy should remind us that we are indeed surrounded “by a cloud of witnesses” to encourage us to be holy as God is holy and “to bow our faces to His presence.”