I remember hearing this rather striking statement years ago from a friend of mine who ministered with me in the Charismatic Renewal. He meant that his “old man”, his “sin nature”, his “flesh”, was “dead with Christ,” and could therefore feel no more pain from insults, slights, etc. And in his case, it was really true! A deeply Christian man and full of the Holy Spirit, he not only “talked the talk” but “walked the walk” as well. He exemplified virtue, holiness and the fruit of the Spirit. I wondered if I could say that same thing, but I came to the fairly obvious conclusion that I couldn’t. I’m pretty sure that my flesh, my “old man”, is still alive enough to hurt! I guess it hasn’t yet been crucified, as St. Paul urges (cf. Galatians 5:24). All of this leads me to think about the whole topic of virtue and holiness – what does it mean and how do I get it? What follows is the result of some of my prayerful reflection.
WHAT IS HOLINESS?
Let’s begin by asking, “What is holiness, anyway?” You may be surprised to know that holiness basically means “separate, set apart, different.” God is the All-Holy, the one who is totally separate and wholly other. In the Old Testament, the Holiness Code is found in Leviticus and repeated in 1 Peter 1:15-16, “But as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’”
Holiness can be described a number of ways: union with God; a close relationship with the Lord; to be joined with the Lord; to be identified with the Lord; to “put on Christ”; to let Christ live in me, to be conformed to Christ’s image, etc. Basically, holiness is being as much like God and as close to Him as possible. For this, we simply have to “fix our eyes on Jesus.” He is God Incarnate, the Word made Flesh, the “founder and perfecter of our faith” (cf. Heb. 12 :1). The Person of Jesus shows us what holiness really is.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR US TO BE HOLY?
Holiness leads us back to the Greatest Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, your whole mind, your whole soul and your whole strength.” This is called the Shema Israel: “Hear, O Israel, The Lord our God is one Lord…” and found in Deut. 6:4-47. It is quoted by Jesus in all three Synoptic gospels: Mt. 22:37; Mk 12:30; Lk 10:27. God is to be first in our lives – our only love and desire. The Lord instructed the Israelites that this Commandment was to be lived and taught to their children, generation after generation, and worn on the wrist, on the forehead and placed on the doorposts on their homes. Holiness means God first and alone on the throne of my heart.
“Repent and believe in the gospel.” This is actually the first commandment found in the gospels, from both John the Baptist (Mt 3:2) and Jesus (Mt 4:17; Mk 1:15). Holiness always begins with repentance and faith. This command is one of the options in the distribution of ashes on Ash Wednesday.
Obey the Lord’s word; keep his commandments. “If you love me, you will obey my word.” This saying (or a close variant) comes up about 15 times in the gospel and letters of John. We cannot separate loving God from obeying God, and both are essential to holiness.
Do the Lord’s will. Jesus prayed in Gethsemane, “Not my will but your will be done” (Mt 26:39; Mk 14:36; Lk 22:42). This devotion to the Father’s will formed the spirituality of Jesus. Especially in the Gospel of John, we see that Jesus was consumed with doing the Father’s will. So should we be, if we are to be holy.
Love others; love your neighbor as yourself; love others as I have loved you (Mt 22:40; Mk 12:31; Lk 10:28; Jn 13:34-35). In some ways, this may be the most challenging and difficult of all. It’s one thing to love and serve the Lord…but my neighbor, who is as flawed and sinful as I am? “If you do not love your brother whom you can see, how can you love God whom you cannot see?” (1 Jn 4:20). This is where our virtue and holiness “gets real.”
HOW CAN WE GROW IN HOLINESS?
The grace of the Holy Spirit in us accounts for our growth. On our own, we can’t do it. It has to be God’s work in us. St. Paul exhorts the Philippians to “work out their salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13).
Our role is twofold: first, to sincerely desire this work of God in us; and second, to yield to it. I think of the song by Eddie Espinosa: “Change my heart, O God, make it ever true; change my heart, O God, may I be like you. You are the potter, I am the clay; mold me and make me. This is what I pray.” This is good theology and good spirituality!
Our call is to reproduce the dying and rising of Christ in us, as it says in 2 Tim 2:1. This passage has been turned into a beautiful hymn by Lucien Deiss, CSSp, a Spiritan priest: “If we die with the Lord, we shall live with the Lord. If we endure with the Lord, we shall reign with Lord.” The chorus is, “Keep in mind that Jesus Christ has died for us and is risen from the dead. He is our saving Lord; he is joy for all ages.” Again, this is what holiness is all about.
There is no shortcut around the cross. There was none for Jesus and there isn’t for us. Jesus told us, “Unless a man pick up his cross daily and follow me, he cannot be my disciple” (Lk 9:23). The grain of wheat must fall into the earth and die in order to bring forth much fruit (cf. John 12: 24-26). During the remainder of this Lent, as we move into Holy Week and the Paschal Triduum, let us trust Jesus for the grace “to be holy as He is holy.”
Let us take encouragement from St. Paul’s words in Phil 1:6: “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it through to completion in the day of Christ Jesus.” God is faithful and He will do it!