The word in the Hebrew Old Testament for holiness is qodesh; its New Testament Greek equivalent is hagiasmos. Both mean literally “separation.” Holiness reflects a separation of the pure from the impure. Ultimately, the term reflects God, who is profoundly other: “Who is like you among the gods, O Lord?” (Ex 15:11). While God is singularly holy, Israel could participate in God’s holiness by living the Torah or law. Israel understood herself as separated from the rest of the nations as a priestly people (Ex 19:6). And God commanded, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lv 19:2).
The distinction between pure and impure is a running theme in the Gospels and Acts. This issue assuredly reflects the Judaism of Jesus’ day and the struggle the early church had with non-Jewish converts. A person was deemed too profane to engage in temple worship or even join temple assemblies if he or she did not keep all the purity laws, or was a leper, a Samaritan, a tax collector, in some way mutilated, a Gentile or someone suspected of having an impure spirit. Jesus was famous for his compassion for those deemed impure, because he healed the maladies that made them so. But he also challenged the categories that labelled people as impure, like the Samaritans. And when purity laws became meaningless or the object of obsessive attention, he simply ignored them.
The Holy Spirit, gift of the risen Christ, blew apart the biggest category of those who were considered impure, the Gentiles. In the first reading, we hear the story of Peter being sent to the house of the Gentile Cornelius. Part of Peter’s speech reads, “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.” While Peter was speaking, the Holy Spirit anointed the Gentiles of that house, and Peter’s companions “were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit should have been poured out on the Gentiles also.”
Clearly the old categories are vanquished. But was the very idea of holiness a casualty of the shift? The readings today retain the deep imperative to be holy, but they redefine that. Peter gives us a start. He recognizes Cornelius and his household as devout souls. Acts tells us that it was Cornelius’s piety to which God responded (10:4). The message from the second reading is all the more pertinent: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love.”
This then is the new purity law, the new way of distinguishing whether one is holy or unholy, pure or impure: Do you love? This kind of love is the opposite of selfish or greedy acquisitiveness. The love the Scriptures have in mind is divine love. God must be the source, and when we love out of this source we mediate the divine. Jesus’ long speech in the reading from John’s Gospel is filled with the imperative to love. “As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love.” Jesus tells us that we remain in his love if we keep his commandments, which boil down to just one: “This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you.”
There is a kind of sacred circularity here. We are loved first by God, and this enables us to be holy and to love as God loves. We remain in that divine intimacy insofar as we love, and loving is the sole criterion that determines our holiness. Once you receive the gift and live the gift, you become the gift—that is, you become a divinely loving soul, and you become a gift to those you love as well.
Holiness as love is both gift from God and God’s very being offered to all. We see that in the example of Cornelius and indeed today in the witness of profound souls, some inside our institution and some outside. As Peter says, “God shows no partiality.”