There's a moment in the story of Moses when holiness shows up unexpectedly.
He's in the desert tending his father-in-law's flock when he notices a bush that's on fire but isn't burning up. When he comes close, God speaks to him from within the bush and tells him to take off his sandals because he is standing on holy ground.
I think we've all had moments like that. Not a burning bush, maybe, but an unexpected holy moment. It may have been with someone you love, when the intimacy and safety you shared came to the surface and made time go slow. Maybe it was with your friends over a long meal, and the food you ate and the stories you told, the way the conversation shifted effortlessly from lighthearted jokes to tear-filled story-telling and back again, all added up to something more than the sum of its parts. It may have been a moment of prayer, or a time when beauty arrested you. It may have been a sermon from a preacher or an encounter with Scripture or an utterly irreligious place that was infused with the sacred. You may have witnessed a courageous act, where justice was asserted in a world that can be violently unjust. These are moments that point to something, that connect us to something, that reveal something. And when you grasped for a word to name the moment and the thing it revealed, the only word that would do was "holy".
But for many of us, the word "holy" can be a train carrying so much freight that it never makes it out of the station.
So here on the blog we're talking about holiness. And if we're going to talk about holiness, we need to look at texts like Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
I know. This probably feels like bad news. These are the texts that go on and on about rituals and sacrifices, with blood everywhere. The blood isn't just a messy side-effect of all that animal killing, either; when you read these texts, you get the impression the point of the killing was to get the blood.
Here's a brief example from Leviticus 4:
[The priest] is to lay his hand on [a young bull's] head and slaughter it before the Lord. Then the anointed priest shall take some of the bull's blood and carry it into the Tent of Meeting. He is to dip his finger into the blood and sprinkle some of it seven times before the Lord, in front of the curtain of the sanctuary. The priest shall then put some of the blood on the horns of the altar of fragrant incense that is before the Lord in the Tent of Meeting. The rest of the bull's blood he shall pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.
Curiously, I've never head this passage read at a wedding or inscribed on an inspirational coffee mug.
But these bloody texts are littered with the word holy. If we played the hot and cold game where you look for some hidden thing and get guidance from someone telling you you're hotter as you get closer, and the thing we were looking for was the concept of holiness, we would hear 'warm... warmer... WARMER! HOT! RED HOT!!" as we turned toward these texts. Right there amidst instructions about animal blood and sacrifice, mixed with commands and prohibitions related to sexual behavior and disease and menstrual periods and treatment of slaves, the word holy comes up again and again.
I don't see a lot of blood in my day to day life. I don't live on a farm or in the wilderness. I don't work in a hospital or on a battlefield. I do, however, have a friend in residency as a surgeon who loves to tell stories about arteries being severed and blood flying everywhere, usually over dinner. (He's a little maladjusted, but then again, what kind of well-adjusted person chooses a profession in which it's normal to take a saw to a living person's chest cavity?) This blood stuff puts distance between us and some of the meaning that would have been immanent to any ancient person, but let's see if we can make some basic sense of it.
Ultimately, the reason I don't see a lot of blood in my day to day life is that I don't see a lot of death.
We freak out when we see blood because it means something about the wholeness of a body has been violated. We SHOULD freak out when we see blood, because when too much blood comes out, we're gone.
Blood is about life and death.
It turns out a lot of the other stuff in these ancient texts was associated with life and death, too. Things like menstrual cycles and even water, like the water used in cleansing rituals.
So maybe holiness, this ancient idea that clearly has something to do with God, has something to do with being alive.
There is life in you and me. It's in the tree outside my window, even now, even when it seems that life has been chased away by a wicked, violent winter. It's in my dog (though his is a kind of manic life, one second his energy coursing through him like he's a puppy, the next him laying so passively that you can pick up his paw and drop it without him opening his eyes to note the interruption in his nap). There is life that we see in a heartbeat, although it's clearly more than a heartbeat. We see it in brain activity, although it's clearly more than brain activity. It shows up in our physiology, though many of us would agree that it transcends physiological categories in important ways.
I've watched many of my friends walk through the miraculous process of becoming parents, and everyone of them seems aware that though they conceived their children through their acts, they can hardly take responsibility for the life that has been created. It's way above our pay grade to make something alive. And yet here we are, so full of life.
So if holiness has something to do with life, then the command to be holy must have something to do with being alive. And if life is more than physiology, then maybe there are ways of walking around with a heartbeat and brain activity that fall short of what God has in mind when He wants to make us alive.
Death has a way of clinging to us. We are corruptible. When a lie takes root and requires us to be more and more deceptive to keep up with it, something not unlike death is creeping in. When we choose greed over generosity, slowly turning more and more inward, something is slowly dying in us. When fear shapes our posture toward this world, keeping us from loving and tempting us toward hating, we have made some kind of deal with death.
When death shows up, it needs to be chased away. We can't just ignore it, hoping time will heal its wounds. We dare not embrace it, because it will take that little opening we offer it and carry on its work. When death takes hold in us, some greater life needs to come along and push it away. And what I'm suggesting here is that all that blood was a way of seeing death chased away.
The Israelites had a holy God in their midst. He is the utterly incorruptible life that gives life. And He and His people knew that death was something they could be tempted by. Something they would capitulate to, again and again. So the life of another -- an animal like a bull -- would be required. The blood that was its life would be used to cleanse the people and their altar, as if that power of life that is represented by blood could be transferred, making a dead thing alive, after a living thing has given its life.
At the end of Deuteronomy, after pages and pages of blood and sacrifice, regulation after regulation, after endlessly distinguishing between what is holy and what is unholy, Moses lays out the final terms of this covenant between God and the Israelites with a sort of summary statement. It begins:
"This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live..."
I'm not sure what you think of when God says "Be holy as I am holy," but maybe the idea of being deeply, holistically alive should come to mind.
More next week...