One of the problems of using words frequently is that they all too easily lose their meanings. Because of overuse, they often no longer have the same power to evoke anything new in our minds. This is as true of religious words as it is true of ordinary words. Yesterday I was caught up short in church when I heard the words of the Sanctus – ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts’. In the Anglican Common Worship the celebrant picks up this word ‘holy’ by addressing the Almighty with the words ‘you are holy indeed, the source of all holiness’. I realised to my shame that I had not thought about this word and its meaning for a long time.
As I reflected on this word later, I slipped back in my mind to my confirmation classes which began almost exactly 60 years ago. The clergyman who taught us gave us a single word explanation of this word ‘holy’. He said it meant ’separate’. I discovered later that this is not a bad translation of the Hebrew word for holy – ‘qodesh’. When Isaiah has his vision in chapter 6, the word ‘holy’ is repeated three times to emphasise a sense of distance between God and humanity. This word ‘qodesh’ was also able to convey his profound sense of awe and wonder felt because of the unexpected vision. These words of Isaiah have inspired much liturgical writing. The Eastern Orthodox liturgy is far more explicit in presenting God as a transcendent, even terrifying reality. The words of the hymn ‘Let all mortal flesh’ convey this Orthodox emphasis. The hymn, a translation of words from the 5th century St James’s liturgy, tells us to ‘keep silent and in fear and trembling stand’. These words convey something of the way that worship for early Christians was an experience which evoked, if not terror, certainly profound humility and respect.
This understanding of the meaning of holiness has affected my appreciation and understanding worship ever since childhood. It never seemed strange to me as a child that the clergy, dressed in their fine robes, were a long way away from the congregation. Still less did I find it strange that the Orthodox clergy were not only at some distance from the people, but even behind a physical barrier, the iconostasis. I remember being rebuked by an Orthodox priest for disrespect because I sat with my legs crossed in the altar area, even when a service was not taking place. The sense of separateness or holiness pertained to that area of the church even when there was no liturgical action taking place.
In many ways, this reflection on the meaning of holiness might seem archaic and belonging to another era. Now, in the place of clergy dressed in gold at one end of a large building, we have worship leaders dressed in casual clothing communicating a chatty informal approach to the Deity. The sacred, the mysterious and the holy in church have in many places been rendered commonplace and no longer special. The question I raise today is whether removing mystery and holiness from worship is what people really want. Do we always wish to have everything taken apart and explained? Would we not rather enter a place and enjoy an experience where words simply fail? I am reminded of the hymn which states that we are to ‘worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness’. As I explained in previous posts, beauty, however we understand or experience it, has a tantalising quality. It will always defy our attempts to grasp it and define it. It will slip out of our grip as we try to use words to hold on to it.
If describing a beautiful object defies our ability to use words precisely, then the same thing should be true of our understanding of God. Should we not at the very least always be rediscovering the separateness, the holiness of God in what we say about him? Should we not make every encounter with God, not an exercise in over-familiarity but a meeting with mystery? As words do not hold on to mystery, so we should approach it with respectful silence and stillness. In Christian history, there has always been an attempt to use art to evoke the reality of God for worshippers. Should we not be discovering new forms of art which can hint at the unknowability and the transcendence of the God we seek to worship? The Protestant emphasis has always been on the written word for 500 years. Thus, access to the divine through seeing has decreased in importance. Our imaginations have also been impoverished by an absence of good art in church. Also, there is no attempt to create a common language among Christians for understanding God through what is visible. Some Christians do in fact find God through visual beauty. Access to him in this way is nevertheless something of a personal individual journey rather than one that unites them to their fellow Christians.
Accessing the holiness of God is like approaching beauty. It is done not through words but through the power of human imagination. Sadly, the dominance of words in Christian culture has made it far more difficult to encounter God’s mystery and holiness. Perhaps this reflection is an invitation to my reader to ponder for him or herself the meaning of this word ’holy’. Perhaps we all need to be recalled to another richer and less verbal understanding of the Divine which this word points to. May we all better encounter him in mystery and in the beauty of holiness.