When I was young, my rabbi tried to explain holiness. His text was Exodus 19, in which God commands Moses to “set limits for the people all around [Mt. Sinai], saying, ‘Be careful not to go up the mountain or to touch the edge of it. Any who touch the mountain shall be put to death.’” (v. 12) The Hebrew word for “holiness,” you see, is qadosh, which literally means “set apart.” Whatever is set apart to the Lord is holy and also, it would seem, inaccessible, since even the Israelites whom Moses is instructed to consecrate [qadash] in verse ten are unable to approach:
Even the priests, in the end, could not ascend the mountain once it had been set apart [qadosh] to the Lord, and only Moses and Aaron made the long trek to the summit, leaving behind them a thronging crowd ringing the base of the holy mountain, not daring to reach out.
Likewise, some centuries later, the ordinary priests, consecrated [qadosh] though they were, would not enter the Holy of Holies [Qadosh ha-Qadosh] at the heart of the Jerusalem Temple. Only the high priest, like his distant predecessor Aaron, would penetrate that level of the sanctuary. “The Holy Spirit was showing by this,” wrote the author of Hebrews, “that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still functioning.” (Hebrews 9:8)
In the West, our reading of this is colored strongly by the translation of both Hebrew qadosh and Greek hagiosmos by Latin sanctus. All three carry the meaning of being set apart, but they call to mind slightly different sets of associated or derived terms in each language. Sanctus, since very ancient times, has been linked with the derivative “sanctuary”—a place where the persecuted could seek asylum, a place “set apart” from the normal operation of law. We often refer to the Holy of Holies historically as “the sanctuary,” and the same term is in common use for the altar space in which the Eucharist is handled. This is accurate enough in a technical sense, but the associations of the Latin suggest to us, most unfortunately, that this is where the holy things go to find refuge from their pursuers—namely, us. For most of the middle ages, the sanctuary was where the Eucharist was kept to remain undefiled, handled only by the priests until they placed it on the tongue of its recipient, for its recipient could no more hope to touch it themselves than the Israelites could dare to place a hand on Sinai.
But this is to pervert the glorious sensuality of John’s term, “the Word became flesh and lived among us…” (John 1:14) John’s word for flesh is sarkos—an earthy term used elsewhere for meat in butcher’s shops and for corpses (as in the word sarcophagus). There is nothing refined, transcendent, or ethereal in this word, which does not set Christ’s body apart from ours in any way. John assures us that the Word became what we are.
The simple English “lived among us” conceals another graphically illustrative word—skenoo, which means “to pitch a tent.” The reference is to Sinai, where the Spirit of God dwelled in a tabernacle pitched “outside the camp, afar off from the camp” (Exodus 33:7). Once again, John wants us to feel the immediacy of Christ. His is no grandiose tabernacle of woven curtains and gold-plated boards pitched afar off, but a simple tent like ours, pitched in the camp among us. That Christ is holy [qadosh] John certainly does not mean to deny, but He is also certainly not “set apart” after the manner of the Old Testament. Christ’s holiness does not come from “set[ting] limits all around,” (Exodus 19:12) as at Sinai, but from His radical transgression of the limits that once separated the human and divine.
Jesus’ sanctity lies not in being set apart from the world, but in being set apart from the distinction between the sacred and the secular. The author of Hebrews proclaims Him the new high priest, who has entered into the Most Holy Place “once for all” (9:12) by means of His own blood, which will “purify our consciences from acts that lead to death,” or “from useless rituals” (9:14). A certain double meaning is probably intended here. On the one hand, Jesus’ transcendence of this duality renders much of the former ritual meaningless, as its purpose was precisely to negotiate boundaries between sacred and secular times, places, and activities. During the first Sabbath controversy, Jesus even used the behavior of priests in the Temple as a precedent for His own disciples’ behavior in the fields (Matthew 12:5), suggesting that an erasure of distinctions had occurred between what was inside the sanctuary and what was outside (an idea that would be sealed when the Temple veil was rent at the Crucifixion in Matthew 27:51).
On a more metaphysical level, the words of Hebrews, focused as they are upon the mental perception of sin (“purify[ing] our consciences”), suggest the eradication of a still deeper level of duality. While the story of Eden is often read simply as one of disobedience, some traditions interpret it as a story of forgetfulness. In the beginning, all things were one with God, but the act of Creation established a realm that was, in some way, distinct or separate from Him, where beings with their own wills could have existence. The oneness of the divine cosmos was thus split, reflected in the original binaries of heaven and earth, sun and moon, and most poignantly the manifestation of God’s image as both male and female. Initially, however, Adam and Eve were still able to see the oneness of all things in God, and so walked in the Garden with Him. After eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, however, they lost this ability; in Eastern parlance, we would say that their third eye closed, and they no longer beheld opposites as twin disclosures of the one divine nature, but instead as opposing forces. They could no longer see male and female as twin manifestations of the same image, and so became ashamed of their nakedness. They could no longer see the earth as one with heaven, and so were driven from the Garden.
When our consciences are purified of acts that lead to death, then, the effect of the fruit is undone. We no longer see action as divided into good and evil—the sacred and the profane—but instead reclaim our wills in Christian liberty, as in the affair of Jesus’ disciples picking grain on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1–8; Mark 2:23–8; Luke 6:1–5). This original duality overcome, we are able to see through all others, and Adam’s Fall is undone—we are restored to the primordial innocence (1 Corinthians 15:22). Our eyes are opened, and we behold that we are in the Garden still, even if we have been blind to it these long ages (Luke 17:21; Thomas 77).
When we speak, then, of sanctification setting us apart from the world, as I occasionally hear well-intentioned Christians do, we are forgetting the radical immanence of Christ, who gave us the Eucharist not that we might magically infuse Him into bread and wine, but as a reminder that He is already in them, as He is in all things—He, through Whom all things were made (John 1:3) and in Whom they have their being (Act 17:28). When we speak of sanctification, as I have heard even preachers do, as a process of rising above the world and its corruption, we forget the will of Jesus, who did not pray for us to be taken out of the world (John 17:15), but emphatically sent us into it (John 17:18). Some ask when sanctification begins, but I say perhaps it begins when we feel in our bones what it means for the Word to be made flesh. Some ask if entire sanctification is possible in this life, but I say perhaps, to the entirely sanctified, there is no longer any difference between this world and the next.
From the time of Abraham, the Israelites believed that one had to enter into a special place to find God’s presence: one had to go up to the Promised Land, go up on the sacred mountain, go into the Temple’s heart, join into the Chosen People. Then, one day, a desperate woman reached out to touch the hem of a garment and, as she laid her fingers upon the line of demarcation—the boundary between her simple world and the place where God was revealed—she was not struck dead, but healed (Matthew 9:20–22; Mark 5:25–29; Luke 8:42–48). And by this, and this alone, she was set apart from the great crowd that pressed around Him, but did not dare to touch.