The Beauty of Holiness

How is it that we have come to think of holiness as grim, gray, and kill-joy?


Sunset on the island of Maui

Now and then as I read a Bible text, a phrase grabs my attention and then haunts my thoughts for some time afterwards. I can’t quite make sense of it, and yet I can’t quite let it go. It’s like a musical tune that runs over and over again in my mind.

That happens for me when I read Psalm 29 in the translation of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. It is a praise psalm. It begins:

Ascribe to the Lord, you gods,

            ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.

 Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his Name;

            worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. [Psalm 29:1-2]*

There it is, at the end of the last line, the phrase I find so odd: the beauty of holiness. The psalmist invites us to worship God in a mode of holiness, which for him is something incredibly glorious and beautiful.

The reason why the phrase pulls me up short is that I don’t customarily link holiness with beauty. In the religious tradition I grew up in, the two are opposites to each other, like matter and anti-matter. There is always something a bit suspect about beauty. You can never quite trust it. It can seduce into sin. And so you never dare to link it to holiness.

A Legacy of the Reformation

How did the religious tradition I grew up in acquire that mindset? I think it goes back to the spirit of ascetical Christianity, but in my tradition, especially to the Puritan strand in the Reformation.

Puritans were generally appalled at all the sensual display of medieval Catholicism–its incense, its statues and stained glass, its fussy vestments, its grandiose architecture, and its elaborate music that only trained choirs could sing. Throw all that out and give us just the plain Word. We often forget, for example, that for a couple of centuries after John Calvin Presbyterians never sang hymns in church, only metrical psalms, and never accompanied by an organ.

So Protestants of the Calvinist variety tended to frown upon any efforts to inject beauty into worship services. Keep everything stark and simple.

But I think there is a deeper reason for the dichotomy, and it goes back to the Separatist strand in the Puritan effort to reform the Church of England. The Separatists took very seriously what the apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 6:17: Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing: and I will receive you. [I quote it in the King James Version, for that was the wording that was always used in the churches where I grew up.]**

Holiness meant keeping separated from anything unholy and unclean. That included anything in churches corrupted by association with ungodly Catholicism, but also anything in the wider world that smacked of sin and evil. And one of those corrupting forces in the wider, sinful world was beautiful things, whether fine fabrics and gold buttons or paintings upon their walls.

As a result, holiness came to be associated with a kind of austere life, simple, plain, and unadorned. It tended to dress in black, and avoid amusements like dancing and theatre. A fine example of this grim, kill-joy understanding of holiness is the grim, kill-joy Christian community we meet in the movie Babette’s Feast. Its austere, gray life fits perfectly into the barren, wind-and-rain-swept landscape of coastal Denmark.

This was the tradition I grew up in, and so I find it odd indeed when I hear the psalmist linking holiness with beauty. How can he do that?

In Search of the Fuller Sense of Scripture

Here’s how I have come to deal with that strange juxtaposition. It involves a practice of reading Scripture that I like to indulge in: the practice of juxtaposing one text against another. In this way I can grasp the fuller sense of Scripture.

This past Sunday, the lectionary assigned as the epistle reading portions of Revelation 21-22. These two chapters describe the elder John’s vision of the new heaven and new earth that God will create at the end of time. At its center is the city of the new holy Jerusalem that descends from heaven to settle on earth.

The descriptions of the city are glorious indeed. It shines. It shines not only in the hovering glory of God, but also with its shimmering gold streets and jewel-studded gates.

The city is built around a garden, from which flows a river of living water. Besides its streams grow the trees of life, producing fruit in all seasons. John compares the city’s beauty to that of a bride adorned in her finest for her husband.

Here in this vision beauty is indeed linked to holiness, for the city is said to be the holy Jerusalem. But what constitutes its holiness? It is that God dwells in this city fully. There is no temple because there is no need to confine God within the sacred space of a building. Instead sacred space has expanded to embrace the whole of the new creation.

What makes the city holy is God’s indwelling presence. It is also what makes the city incredibly beautiful.

Now I always read the visions of Revelation as symbolic, not literal. The city stands for the new community of humanity that will become the norm in the Kingdom of God. And in that kingdom, the promise of Christmas–Emmanuel, God with us–will be completely and ultimately fulfilled.

The Incarnation Points to the Answer

The story of the Incarnation, therefore, provides the key to how beauty and holiness become not only linked but fused together. As God comes to dwell in every human heart and in every chink of God’s world, everything comes to be absorbed into the holy. The distinction between the profane and the sacred is abolished. The holy can shine in beauty in all of creation.

What then we Christians are called upon to do is not to separate ourselves from the world in grim, kill-joy grayness, but go forth to fulfill the call that the voice in the vision speaks to Peter in Acts 10:15: What God has made clean, you must not call profane. That message comes just before messengers knock on Peter’s door with an invitation to come and meet with the Roman officer Cornelius. Peter does, preaches the gospel to Cornelius and his family, and they become the first Gentiles to enter the Christian church.

With this story, we see the momentum of the Incarnation on the move. The distinction between the Jew and the Gentile (a distinction that many Jews and Christians saw as a distinction between the sacred and the profane) was starting to be erased. And as more parts of God’s creation were brought into God’s kingdom, the holy was able to shine more and more in all things as the beauty of God.


* The King James Version follows the translation of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Other modern translations translate the line differently.

**What my religious tradition also tended to ignore is that in this verse in 2 Corinthians, Paul is quoting the Old Testament. It is not his own words. That also affects, I believe, how we read and interpret this verse.

Digging for God in Leviticus

Is holiness a synonym for piety? Leviticus 19 gives it an astonishing twist in meaning.

Few Christians read Leviticus, the third among the five books of Moses. We don’t because when we start to read it, we encounter several chapters of what appear to be abstruse and repetitive regulations for ancient Israel’s worship. We bore quickly, then click out (to use a modern Internet term).

That’s a shame. There’s gold (or God) to be found if we dig deeper. I mean specifically Chapter 19, the chapter the lectionary assigned as the Old Testament reading for Christian worship yesterday.

The chapter comes near the middle of the book. That’s a sign of how important the editor considers this chapter. It centers the whole book’s teaching.

The chapter forms the opening of what scholars call the Holiness Code. This code issues God’s call to the Israelites to be a holy people. You shall be holy, says God to the Israelites, for I the Lord your God am holy. (Leviticus 19.2) The code lays down rules for how Israel is to be holy.

Upsetting our Understanding of Holiness

But what fascinates me is how these rules end up defining holiness. It is far different from the concept of holiness most of us have. It does not designate some ethereal aura of other-worldliness or some form of disdain for others of the holier-than-thou variety. No, holiness for the author of Leviticus is down right practical and this worldly.

As you read through the chapter, you find it means leaving some of the grain field unharvested so that the poor can glean wheat for their own table. It means not stealing or lying. It means not cheating a worker out of his wages. It means not confusing categories like sowing two kinds of grain in the same field.

It means not ridiculing the handicapped. It means not showing partiality to either the rich or the poor in a court trial. It means not bearing a grudge against another person.

It means letting fruit trees mature before you start exploiting them for a harvest. It means honoring the aged. And it means not oppressing the foreigner (or the immigrant) residing in your midst.

All of these regulations apply to concrete behavior, not feelings. These behaviors will set the Israelites apart from their neighbors. For the Hebrew word for holy is qadosh. Qadosh is an adjective that describes something that is set apart or separated to belong to God or be used by God. Israel will show that it belongs to God by its behavior.

Now that can shake up our understanding of holiness. Holiness has not so much to deal with piety as with social relationships.

This understanding of holiness is capsulized in verse 18: You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Jesus and Leviticus 19

If that verse sounds familiar, it should. We encounter it again in the New Testament when Jesus quotes it. When he is asked to name the greatest commandment in the Law of Moses, he quotes Deuteronomy 6:4-5, the Jewish Shema: Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

And then he adds that the second greatest commandment is: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these. (Mark 12:31)

This exalts Leviticus 19 to the level of being one of the two sources of the greatest commandments. That is a good reason for Christians to pay honor to this text.

But as I was reading this chapter in my process of sermon preparation, I found something even more surprising in this chapter, something I never expected to find there. As we read deeper into chapter 19, we find that God instructs the Israelites as to how they are to treat the alien (the foreign immigrant) who is living in their midst.

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:34)

What I had never noticed before was God’s instruction, You shall love the alien as yourself. The wording is an exact parallel with verse 18. In verse 18 the Israelites are called to love their fellow Israelites as they love themselves. But in verse 34, God goes even further. They are to love the foreigner as they love themselves. In fact, they are to regard the foreigner as the equal of their fellow citizens.

Now all who love to quote Leviticus 18:22 in its condemnation of homosexuality might want to pause and ask: What does Leviticus 19:34 have to say about our treatment of undocumented immigrants in America? Leviticus presents both verses as the explicit word of God.

Let me suggest one further nugget in Leviticus 19. Keep in mind that in many ancient languages (like Greek), the word for foreigner or stranger was often the same word for enemy. When God calls the Israelites to love the foreigner in their midst as they love themselves, God is in effect calling them to love their enemy as themselves.

So when Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount calls his disciples to love their enemies, he is not being original. He is showing himself to be one who has meditated deeply on the Old Testament. He is drawing out the deeper implications of God’s call to us to be holy as God is holy.

To my mind, that’s an astonishing extension of the principle of holiness.