Friday, January 11, 2013

Holy Art Thou, O God!

The heaven remains heaven because the inhabitants of heaven believe that God is holy; our world can also become heaven if the inhabitants of our world believe so. One might wonder how such a belief can make our world a heaven. What follows is an explanation of how it is possible.

A Vision of Heaven
In a vision by Prophet Isaiah (ch.6), God is seated on a heavenly throne, and the angels fly around the throne of God uttering the affirmation-- God is holy. A congregation in a house of prayer joins the heavenly choir and affirms this statement repeatedly in the liturgical worship.

Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, by whose glory heaven and earth are filled.

Holy art thou, O God,
Holy art thou, Almighty
Holy art thou, Immortal

After repeating this statement over and over, it is further clarified that God alone is holy.
None is holy except the one Holy Father, the one Holy Son, and the one Holy Spirit!

There have been several explanations of what God's holiness means. In Isaiah's vision, the angels repeatedly affirm that God is holy. This makes Isaiah aware of the unholiness of himself and of his own people. Especially he becomes aware of the unholiness of his tongue, and immediately an angel of God flies down to make his tongue clean. Thus the word holy may be taken to mean clean and pure-- not at an external and physical level but at an internal and mental level. Holiness is the absence of any uncleanness or impurity at all. The attributes of God, such as good, righteous, and loving, may be seen as the various colors of the rainbow of God's holiness. That God is holy may also imply that God is self-existent and complete in Himself.

As the church fathers have asserted, nothing can be spoken truly about God in affirmative terms. We can only say how God is not rather than how God is. So the statement that God is holy is really not a statement that describes God. This cataphatic (positive) statement about God simply means that no being except God is holy.-- good, loving, righteous, complete in himself and self-dependent. The statement that God is holy implies that all humans are unholy. In our day-to-day conversations, we often say "God knows" which really means that no one knows. Similarly "God is holy" means that no one is holy. Once when someone addressed Jesus "Good Lord", Jesus took this opportunity to teach a lesson-- that God alone is good.

God is holy, and human beings can become holy. However, there is a basic difference between these two holiness. God's is original and self-dependent holiness, but man's is derived from God's and is fully dependent on God's holiness. This is similar to Sun's light and moon's light. Sun has its own light, but moon receives its light from Sun. God, like the Sun, is the source of all holiness. One can obtain holiness only by receiving it from God. In Isaiah's vision, God's holiness is represented by the heat that is too intense to burn even the angels who approach God without cover. Staying close to God, the angels receive God's holiness, and they become the transmitors of God's holiness. That is how an angel is able to help Isaiah gain holiness.

Adam remained holy as long as he stayed close to God. As the distance between God and him increased, Adam couldn't stay holy. The closeness and distance should be interpreted metaphorically, not literally. The closeness and distance are more mental than physical. All beings are supposed to stay close to God and be holy. Moving away from God and becoming unholy is sin (taking the wrong direction). Moving back closer to God and becoming holy is righteousness (taking the right direction). St.Paul presents Adam as the prototype of those who move away from God and become unholy, and Jesus (second Adam) as the prototype of those who move closer to God and become holy. 

Someone moves away from God due to self-righteousness-- the belief that "I am right". Someone moves closer to God due to God-righteousness-- the belief that God alone is right. Jesus explained this idea with several stories. The younger son in the story of the prodigal son returns to his father when he admits that his father is right and he is wrong. The older son, claiming that he is right and his father and his brother are wrong, moves away from his father. Someone claiming to be righteous always moves away from God. Someone who admits that God is righteous, and that he/she is unrighteous moves closer to God. Does the fact that he chooses to move closer to God make him any better than the others who move away? He wouldn't think so. If he does, he becomes self-righteous, and he starts moving away from God. On the other hand, he thinks that it is because of God's grace that he is able to move closer to God.

The belief that God alone is righteous springs from the belief that God alone is holy. However, the belief that "I am right" springs from the belief "I am holy". 

Turning Earth Into Heaven
So what does it mean? What is the relevance of affirming that God alone is holy with the implication that all human beings are unholy?

The one most fundamental existential problem in our world is broken relationships-- between God and man, between man and man, and between man and nature. Seeking after the root cause of broken relationships, we finally reach self-justification. When I believe "I am right," it is self-justification. Families break because husbands and wives cannot stay united. Each wants to place the blame on the other rather than working together as a team. In every organization, people justify themselves and blame others. This is true in international relations as well. Instead of seeing the world as a family, each nation justifies itself, and blames others.

Underlying self-justification is the belief that some people are good (holy) and and some are not. If some people are believed to be good, everyone would want to claim to be good, which is self-justification.

It is further believed that good people are blessed and bad people are cursed. It is inferred from this belief that the blessed ones are good people and the cursed ones are bad people. Thus all the poor, the sick, and the disabled are treated as bad people, and the rich and the comfortably living ones are treated as good people. This breaks down human relationships further.

To solve the problem of broken relationships, self-justification needs to be eliminated. In order to eliminate self-justification, the belief that some people are good needs to be eliminated. If all people are bad, no one can claim to be good. Thus the belief that God alone is good is the solution to the problem of broken relationships. The affirmation that God alone is holy implies that all people are unholy, which further implies that blessings and curses have nothing to do with being good, for nobody is good. This should encourage us to treat all people equally, and should refrain us from justifying ourselves and judging others.

When Adam and Eve placed the blame on others, justifying themselves, they didn't know that God alone is holy. The Pharisee in Jesus' parable didn't know this, which made him justify himself. But the tax collector knew this, which made him admit he was unholy. Christian church is supposed to be a group of people who understand themselves to be a new humanity that believes that God is holy. They assemble in a new Garden of Eden (a church) to meet God and reaffirm their conviction that God alone is holy. They approach the presence of God, who is kodesh (Hebrew word for holy), in order to become kodesh. In Syriac it became kaadeesh. The process that makes people kodesh is koodasha (purification). The Holy Eucharist is the primary Koodasha, which is done in almost every Christian church and in almost every week.

The belief that God is holy is what keeps the heaven a heaven. If we can believe so, our earth can also become heaven. But a superficial knowledge with our conscious mind is not good enough. This knowledge has to sink down to our unconscious, which happens by repeated affirmation and meditation. We need to follow the example of the angels in heaven-- repeatedly affirm that God is holy. This affirmation needs to rise not just from our lips but from the depth of our hearts. No wonder our forefathers created a liturgy in which this affirmation is repeated over and over.


Tony Daniel said...

I have a problem with the meaning of the word "Holy" as theologised by churches, which completely changes the original intent of its usage.

The Holy is now used to mean, 1. that which cannot be transgressed or violated.
2.Sacred, consecrated or Godly.

I have provided citations below that may throw some light on how the ancients used this word.
40 hágios – properly, different (unlike), other ("otherness"), holy; for the believer, 40 (hágios) means "likeness of nature with the Lord" because "different from the world."

The fundamental (core) meaning of 40 (hágios) is "different" – thus a temple in the 1st century was hagios ("holy") because different from other buildings (Wm. Barclay). In the NT, 40 /hágios ("holy") has the "technical" meaning "different from the world" because "like the Lord."

[40 (hágios) implies something "set apart" and therefore "different (distinguished/distinct)" – i.e. "other," because special to the Lord.]
RF. copyright © 1987, 2011 by Helps Ministries, Inc.
For complete text and additional resources visit:

2.KEDUSHAH (Heb. קְדֻשָּׁה). The biblical term for holiness is kodesh; mishnaic Hebrew, kedushah, and that which is regarded as holy is called kadosh. Jewish exegetes, following early rabbinic interpretation (Sifra) of Leviticus 19:2: "You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy," have consistently taken the verb kadesh to mean "distinguished, set apart." The Sifra paraphrases the command with the words "You shall be set apart" (Heb. perushim). The traditional interpretation coincides with the findings of modern phenomenologists of religion who describe the holy as "the wholly other" and as that which is suffused with a numinous quality.

Does this changes the whole equation?

John Kunnathu said...

Dear Tony,
Thank you very much for commenting.

Let me share with you some of my thoughts on the meaning of the word "holy".

A word is like a container. There is no guarantee that a container is used by people for the same content all the time. So the meaning of a word varies according to the people who use the word and the context in which it is used.

The word "holy" does not have a meaning of its own. We neeed to find out what a speaker/writer mean by the word in the context in which this word is/was used.

When we speak of God's holiness and the holiness of someone/thing else, they cannot have the same meaning. For example, a holy day is a day "set apart" to God. But we cannot apply the same meaning when we say "holy God". "God set apart to God" doesn't make sense.

Let me explain the approach I have taken in the article posted above. I make an attempt to understand the meaning of holy in the context of Isaiah's vision. The angels affirm repeatedly that God is holy. This makes Isaiah aware of his own unholiness.

I don't claim that we can understand exactly what is meant in this context. We can only make a guess.

I take the meaning of the word "holy" when used to speak of God to mean an umbrella term that includes good, righteous, and loving. I use the metaphor of rainbow. Holy is like a rainbow that includes colors like good, loving and righteous.

This is just a suggestion from me. I like to hear what others think about this, and like to hear other possible suggestions of what this word might mean.

Tony Daniel said...

God is described as Holy. In the early Hebraic writing God is given the attribute of "otherness". The 'other' had important connotation in all ancient religions. The philosophy of "Do unto others....." and "Whatever you do to the least of my brothers....." are derivatives of the significance of the otherness of God.

The prefix 'Holy' to God is rather inaccurate on two counts. Firstly, the human urge to find an attribute for God and secondly the explanation of God being 'Set apart for God'. In the context of God being holy, the ancients could only be certain of one thing, that is, God is not anything like they can experience or knowable. God simply IS. Hence, God is the other, that which is distinct from, that which is not subject to scrutiny.

The Angel (messenger) was perhaps trying to point out to Isaiah about the chasm that existed between the knowable (self and the world at large) and the other-unknowable, (God, Heaven and Realms of the Spirit). The Angel perhaps indicated that the distance between man and God can be bridged only by being spiritual.

Tony Daniel said...

Thank you very much for the clarification. During the blessing of the censor, it goes, "Holy is the Holy God, Holy is the Holy Son, Holy is the .......Holy Spirit". To me it sounds like " Red is the red apple, yellow is the yellow banana, so on and so forth. This is what prompted me to look for the meaning of the word, "Holy". Words are used with minimum exactitude in explaining the inexplicable. This, I can understand as the concept of God recedes into obscurity the more we try to fix a meaning on It. Is there any possibility of going back to "Nazareth", to all its simple magnificence?
Yes I agree, can people with similar interest discuss such topics?