Sunday, February 18, 2007

In the Divine Service: The Holy

For your devotional use, I would like to post some articles I have written about hymns, liturgy, and worship. They were originally published in my church newsletter in columns titled "In the Divine Service" and "Melody Moment...Eph. 5:19-20." I will alter them only by removing specific references to the parish I was serving at the time, and by adding pictures. If you enjoy, feel free to share! +++

Our culture today has all but lost hold of the concept of “the holy.” I don’t mean holiness in the sense of being a super-good person who has conquered temptation and walks hand-in-hand with God. I mean “the holy” in the sense that, when we are in its presence, we feel joy, confidence, peace, and fear at the same time. I mean the kind of “holiness” that used to make people fall down on their faces in worship.

In the Divine Service, you come into the presence of the holy. For God is present. In Christ, God is your loving Father and merciful friend. But He is not your “buddy.” He is a completely different sort of Being. He is unique, eternal, almighty, and good. Even though in Christ He is your brother, and shares in your humanity, He is at the same time so different that you can never wholly understand Him.

He is holy. On one level, that means He is totally “other” than everything else. He is the Creator; you and I are created. He is Triune—One God and yet Three Persons—try to figure that out! He is Incarnate—true God and Man in one Person—does your head hurt yet? He is so absolute, so basic, so there, that you with your delicate body and your puny lifespan are not nearly as “real” as He is. Yet He hides Himself, so you must approach Him through Word and Sacrament, and take who He is on faith.

He is holy. On another level, that means He is absolutely pure, and that everything opposed to Him is evil. Whatever is not completely devoted to Him or submissive to His will, is sin. Sin is rebellion against God. And because He is holy He cannot make room for sin. He must oppose it, destroy it, purify His creation of it, by nature. That is the Holiness in whose presence we come in the Divine Service.

So reverence becomes us. Being caught up in the presence of the Holy, we unholy beings gather in fear and trembling, and above all, in repentance. We cannot endure His immediate presence, but He comes to us through means—the Gospel preached, the body and blood shared—so that He can cleanse us of unholiness, forgive our sins, and bring us to Himself. Yet even those means partake of His holiness.

They are holy things (sacraments), which He gives to make us holy people (saints). So though we are sinners as long as we live, we are now saints in His eyes. We belong to Jesus who suffered for us, the holy for the unholy. God is gracious to us and has made peace with us. Our rebellion is ended, our impurity is taken away, and our flight from God toward hell has been diverted—back to God again, and eternal life.

Therefore the place where we encounter God’s holy things is a holy place (sanctuary), and the time we spend there is holy time. Here a third aspect of the biblical concept of “holiness” comes in: this place and time are “set apart” for a special purpose, to be handled with care, and to be used for no common or unworthy purpose. In the Old Testament, when something (or someone) was “dedicated,” they were either destroyed—as in a burnt offering—or they were turned over for sacred use and no other. So when something has been consecrated to God, it is as if we have made a burnt offering of it, as if we have destroyed it in regard to any other purpose or use. It is holy to the Lord.

And so, we pass that holy time with awe-filled attention to God’s holy things. We dwell in His sanctuary in respect and sobriety, and take care lest we use holy space in any selfish or improper way. And we are not at all surprised when, during holy time in a holy place, the style and content of what happens is different from elsewhere. The Church has a distinct culture of her own. You may understand parts of it better than others, but one thing is clear: something special, something holy, is here.

IMAGE: Central nave. Location: Cathedral, Worms, Germany. Photo Credit : Vanni / Art Resource, NY

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