May the God of peace make you perfectly holy.
I Thessalonians 5:23
Sometimes heavily theological things just sneak up on one, and so it is for this third Sunday in Advent. In what is probably the earliest of Paul’s letters to survive, the apostle prayed that the Thessalonians might be made holy by the God of peace. In that short prayer there are two grand assumptions. The first is that the goal of life in Christ is holiness; the second that this work is accomplished in us by God, is proclaimed throughout Sacred Scripture; “You must be holy for I your God am Holy” (Leviticus 19:2). To be holy is to be set apart; as God is set apart from His creation, so Israel is set apart from the nations and their idolatry, so also the Church is set apart from the world. Before the throne of God the four living animals, representative of all of animate nature, sing forever, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God almighty.” The offering at the Eucharist begins with the words, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts. Heaven and earth are full of your glory.” The great prayer Our Lord gave His Church begins, “Our Father who art in heaven, let your name be held holy.” So Paul is teaching the Thessalonians and us that the end of life is to share in the life of God who is holy.
In part God’s holiness is His otherness; what He is not, that He is not a creature and not to be worshipped under the image of anything on the earth, under the earth or in the sky above. The existence of this Holy One, not a being but self-subsistent being Himself, who is conditioned by nothing on earth but who created every creature out of nothing through His will and is causing the existence of creatures moment by moment; who is personal and more than personal, and directs the ways of every person, who does not have justice but who is justice, who loves because He is love, and who will judge the world against the standard He has erected; be holy because I am holy. His holiness is not an absence but a fullness, and having taught us that His beauty and His goodness are not of our conceiving, He assures us that as His gift these surpass what eye has seen or ear heard.
We are not holy in ourselves but we may become holy by participating in His holiness through our sharing in the life of Jesus Christ His son. The holiness He gives us is ours in fact, but it is not a thing but a relation, a gift of the companionship of God, which lives in the heart of the humble, and which, if it is not honored and nourished will turn dry, then hard, and then become a testimony against those who have presumed. “Holy” is used rarely, if at all, of the living.
We achieve that participation not because we seek Him but because He seeks us and in seeking us gives us the desire to share His life and to do His will, which is the fruition of life in the Son who is consubstantial with the Father. He makes us righteous and His sons and daughters in baptism. Why every soul does not receive this gift is hidden in the particularity of a providence that chose Israel while neglecting the Greeks and Persians, and the destiny of those not, as far as human eyes can see, enjoying this blessing must be left to Him. Having justified us in baptism by His condescending charity through the sacrifice of Christ, His love does not let us go but through the sacraments, those holy-makers, makes us holy, that is, offered to God and called out of the world, And this is, as Paul says, the work of God.
In modernity this divinely revealed and accomplished pattern of our engagement with God is opposed by a noxious climate of ideas. In an age that has lost interest in God, the temptation to see the principal work of the Church as the amelioration of human poverty and suffering tends to the derogation of Paul’s prayer that we must first be made holy to the Lord, whom we must first love before we touch the world, lest lacking charity, our works become as sounding brass and tinkling symbols, giving our goods and offering our bodies without the charity that makes then pleasing to God.
Even more fundamentally damaging is the religious atheism that besets a still Christ-haunted world, a spirit unable to conceive that the world we know with its seemingly indefinite extension through galaxy after galaxy and its seeming persistence through ages upon ages is like a nut in the hand of the Almighty or a breath or vapor vanishing when morning comes. And add to this debilitating blindness the insensitivity to things eternal that so easily allows the belief that the finality of life is the culture of comfort that dulls the taste for the adventure of the soul toward holiness which Paul commends, blotting out the light of heaven with the blue gaze of the electronic eye. And add the debilitating effect of a life of incessant noise and excitement, beside which the joys of sharing in the very life of God seems to a taste unaccustomed to the things of heaven to be a great bore. The saints do not describe their journey toward holiness as vibrant, exciting, and innovative, but speak of peace, fulfillment, and sweetness.
Paul adds to his words quoted in the superscript, “And may you entirely, spirt, soul, and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.” The life we live now in Christ is justified and perfected by its end, the return of Jesus. For what life and indeed history mean is not an indeterminate process toward an unknown future but a Person. Through whatever timefull meof companionship ans God repaired in nature the catastrophe of the fall, that process was perfect when God planted a garden in Eden. The divine-human person who is at once the second Adam and the Son of God is “the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation,” in whom all things were created in heaven and earth . . . . He is before all things and in Him all things hold together. . . . In Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile all things, whether in heaven or on earth, making peace by the blood of His cross.”
This same Jesus in whom the creation of all things exists, this Person, is He who will welcome those who have walked in His way, wiping the tears of life from their eyes. He is causing at this moment the existence of the world of minds and men and oaks and animals. As the celebration of the Birth of Christ approaches, be it remembered that the Child born in Bethlehem is of one substance with the holy, immortal God who made the star that announced His birth.