The Church is Holy

Michael A. Hayes

?I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne ... above him stood seraphs ... and they were shouting to one another: ?Holy, Holy Holy is Yahweh Sabaoth.?? (Isai. 6.3) Isaiah?s vision is all about the immensity and otherness of God, and the word used above all to designate God is ?Holy?.

Both Testaments of the scriptures apply the word Holy to God and by implication the things of God. ?You shall be holy, for I am holy? God commands through Moses in the book of Leviticus (20.26). Indeed Leviticus? many laws about food and purity and activity are significant for the people because they are about holiness. (See also Deuteronomy 23.14) Isaiah the prophet in his innumerable passages calling for the people to live up to the covenant always emphasises the holiness of God (1.4, 5.19, 10.17, 41.14 etc.). The first letter of Peter quotes the passage from Leviticus: ?Be holy because I the Lord am Holy? (1 Peter 1.16).

Therefore when we profess a Church that is Holy ? our primary reference must be God. By its relationship to Christ through Baptism and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit the people of God is a holy temple (Acts 1.5), a holy priesthood (1 Pet 2.5), and offers a spiritual sacrifice in the Holy Spirit (Rom 15.16). When we address the issue we can posit holiness as characterising the Church because of its election by God, its vocation from God, its covenant with God in Christ and the very indwelling of the Holy Spirit. (Note the two prefaces on the Church from the Roman Missal). That holiness is also required of the individual Christian ?Rather become holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct, after the likeness of the Holy One?
(1 Pet 1.15).

It does not require much examination within ? or hearing much criticism from without ? to acknowledge that holiness is not the only reality characterising the people of God. The Church is very vulnerable to charges of sinfulness ? quite rightly when one considers that Jesus? words in the gospel are never as scathing as when he deals with the hypocrisy of religious people. The reality is that the Holy Church has, as its members, weak human beings living in time and place, sharing in the temptations of an imperfect society in a fallen world. The members of the Church live with that tension ? of being made Holy by God and yet living lives marked by sin and infidelity. That tension demands the constant penitence and purification that the Vatican II document, Lumen Gentium, calls for, ?the Church, however, clasping sinners to her bosom, at once holy and always in need of purification, follows constantly the path of penance and renewal (LG8).? In this struggle the people of God have direct access to the holiness of God through the deposit of faith, the sacraments and witness of the saints. This holiness of God produces fruitful activity in all areas of Christian living, and as with sin it does not require much examination within ? or hearing much comment from without ? to acknowledge that holiness is indeed a reality characterising the people of God.

In the final book of the scriptures, the Revelation of John, we find a deliberate reiteration of the scene from Isaiah as John sees the heavens open and gazes on God, and again it is the holiness of God that is the focus: ?Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was studded with eyes all the way round as well as inside and night and day they never stopped singing: ?Holy, Holy Holy is the Lord God the Almighty; who was and is and is to come.??

What the Book of Revelation does, however, is not just stop with the holiness of God and the unholiness of humanity (?Woe is me?, says Isaiah, ?for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips? [Isai. 6.5]). The tension of the holy Church and sinful people of God is finally resolved (and will be finally resolved) with the coming of Christ in glory at the eschaton, when he will make her ?glorious, with no speck or wrinkle of anything like that, but holy and faultless? (Eph 5.27). At the end of the Book, John offers us another vision: ?Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth ... I saw the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God prepared as a bride dressed for her husband? (21.2). The image of the wedding feast of the Lamb, prefigured in the Eucharist celebrated by the Church, is the final resolution of the holiness of the Church.???