What is holiness?

Holiness is a complex concept. It refers to the essence of God's being, not so much a single attribute but perhaps the sum of all attributes.

Hallowed Be Your Name

Written by George S. Yandell

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Here is a story from the New York Times:

Back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Percival Lowell, astronomer for whom the Lowell Observatory in Arizona is named, spent some fifteen years looking at Mars and sketching what he perceived as a network of fine lines connecting the polar cap with a number of dark areas. He argued that these were canals built by an intelligent civilization to move water from the polar ice caps to deserts, similar to phenomena he also saw on Venus. Years later, subsequent studies revealed that he had so configured the aperture on his telescope as (unintentionally) to make it mimic an ophthalmoscope, an instrument used to examine the interior of the eye. What Lowell saw as spokes on Mars and Venus were actually shadows of the blood vessels and other structures in his own retina.
— (NY Times, 10/09/02, p D3)

Anais Nin wrote: "We don't see things as they are. We see them as we are."

Percival Lowell’s observation of his own eyes’ vascular structure, mistaking his blood vessels for canals on Mars, tells us something important about our relationship with God. Often we ascribe to God aspects of our own make-up, without realizing we project our own stuff onto God’s self. Often we see God as we are. I think because we’ve said "The Lord’s Prayer" so often, we glide past the revolutionary aspects of this teaching on prayer from Jesus. I think we speak to God about who and what we are, but miss who God is and what God intends for us.

"To Hallow" means to make holy, to set apart for special service, to venerate, to sanctify. Abraham Lincoln captured some of the meanings of the verb "hallow" in "The Gettysburg Address":

But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.

When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, "Father, hallowed be your name," he suggested many things at once about us disciples and our relationship to God. Curiously, Jesus used the word "hallow" in a sense for which it had rarely been used before. He told his disciples to say: "God’s name be consecrated, made holy", as if their saying it had something to do with it being accomplished. In fact, Yahweh had already made that name holy through centuries of acting in Hebrew history. God’s name means being, change, choice. Was Jesus teaching them that their own praying, their own actions accomplished God’s holiness? No, I don’t think so.

Instead, I believe Jesus offered a remarkable glimpse into God’s own nature: God desires humans to be partners in making holy not only the name of God, but the whole of God’s creation. God desires us to be change agents, co-consecrators with God, if you will. And another clue: the verb form used of "hallow" speaks of an action that occurs at a point in time but continues into the indefinite future. What does co-consecrating with God mean for us?

It all begins in baptism, when Christians are set apart, consecrated, and marked as Christ’s own forever. We become Christ’s holy people. An action initiated at specific point in time by God, assisted by disciples, with effects into infinity. I’d like to offer a clear description of how we might co-consecrate with God.

The example is from our Book of Common Prayer. There’s another word that perfectly translates "to hallow"; the word is "sacrifice." Sacra = Latin for holy, ficio = to make. Sacrifice = to make holy. Look at page 306 in the Book of Common Prayer. The prayer the celebrant prays describes the sacrifice of Jesus making us holy:

We thank you Father for the water of baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.

Please turn to page 308. The prayer said for each newly baptized person includes these intentions:

Sustain them, O Lord in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.

So the sacrifice of Jesus for us makes us co-sacrificers. All these gifts are given by God, not just from God’s largess, but for a purpose:so that we might know God fully, and be co-consecrators, co-hallowers with God, of all humanity. Baptism blesses us so that we in turn might help make holy God’s world, with God as our partner.

I’d like to close with another line from Abraham Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg. (He must have known the depth of the meaning of "hallowing" from The Lord’s Prayer.)

It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us.

To be dedicated is to sacrifice, to make holy. We’re teamed with the God of all creation to co-consecrate, to co-hallow this time, this place because that’s our identity, it’s our gift from God. It is a joyful, wonderful work after all, isn’t it? So when you pray, pray to hallow with God, as Jesus taught us.

Copyright ©2002 Calvary Episcopal Church. This series was first presented at Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis, TN.

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