Holiness versus Purity
I recently had occasion to attend an evening service in a large, urban church run by an inner city monastic community. The mix of people there was very different than what we normally see in the suburbs. There were men and women of every possible description present in that church service—the prosperous, the poor; the young, middle aged, and old; people in almost every conceivable human category were present in the building.
As diverse as these people were, they were united by one thing: the way they looked when they came back from taking communion. They appeared, for the moment, transformed. Something had happened in the liturgical transaction that made them, well, beautiful. It wasn’t as if they’d been cleansed. I was as if they’d been changed.
As I’ve reflected on this experience, I’ve come to think a good deal about the difference between purity and holiness. Religious systems seem to be interested in the former. Jesus offers the latter. It seems to me that when we confuse purity with holiness, we do so at our souls’ peril.
There is, of course, a good deal about purity in the Bible. Much of the book of Leviticus, and other sections of the Torah, is concerned with ritual cleanliness. Over time, the Temple cult in Israel built up a system of purity. If you were going to offer a sacrifice, the system said, you’d need to be ritually clean. So you’d better not defile yourself beforehand by touching certain types of people. There are pages and pages of regulations in the Bible telling us who’s clean and who isn’t. They all have to do with the administration of a purity system.
One of the ways of understanding Jesus’s ministry, though, is to see it as a critique of the purity codes. Jesus regularly consorted with all kinds of “unclean” people and in fact sat with them at his table. He questioned the reliability of any system that would provide ritual purity as a guarantee of righteousness. He offered in the place of purity a vision of holiness. For Jesus, holiness consisted in a compassionate, thankful stance toward life. It involved inner motivation as much as outward behavior.
The people I saw at this urban church may not have been—by their or our or anyone else’s definition—pure. But they did seem to me to be holy. Something about the unconditional acceptance they had received at God’s table had illuminated them from within. I don’t know what they did when they left the building, but I do know that for a moment at least they had known themselves to be loved and so made new in God’s image.
These days in the Episcopal Church it is common practice, during the great fifty days (Easter through Pentecost), to omit the Confession of Sin from the liturgy. Many people ask me why we do this. The technical answer is that, just as Lent is a penitential season, so Easter is a festival season, and so one way we mark the contrast between them is to omit the penitential markers that frame our Lenten observance. But the deeper answer has to do with this question of purity versus holiness.
Somehow, even though Jesus tried to reform the purity system of his day, we have built up one of our own. We in the church have fostered the idea that you need somehow to be “clean” in order to take communion. We have also fostered the cognate notion that you need to be “clean” in order to serve communion. In so doing, we have unconsciously conceived the bread and wine of the Eucharist as some kind of metaphysical cleaning solvents.
But the Eucharist has nothing, really, to do with cleanliness. It has to do with holiness. And by holiness I don’t mean being pure. By holiness I mean being internally aligned with what God is doing to and for and within and through you. Easter is about resurrection, about new life. It is about God’s transforming freedom as a new way of living. You don’t have to clean yourself up to deserve it. God offers this Easter living to you because God knows and loves and accepts you as you are.
So for the fifty days between Easter and Pentecost we won’t say the Confession. If that omission makes you nervous, perhaps God is asking you to think less about cleanliness and more about holiness. How can I be an Easter person? How can I live out the resurrection in my life and work and relationships? How can I both manifest God’s freedom in my own life and extend it to others?
Living with the risen Jesus at Easter may not make you and me clean. But it will over time make us holy. And we can be holy only because the One who loves and frees us is holy. That is a truth worth celebrating and living into. Happy Easter!