I’ve always felt like there was something paradoxical about the Holy of Holies. Here is supposed to be the place where God’s presence resides; and yet, the Bible tells us that God is everywhere. The forbidden room, the thick curtain – these things are symbols of our separation from God. His distance from us. Yet, there is something about the curtain. Something about the forbidden space behind it – that makes God somehow seem closer, more tangible, than the mere fact that he is everywhere does.
I started thinking about this a long time ago, when I worked overnights, as a program counselor, in a group home. At one of the houses, there was a walkthrough room that was used for staff who were paid to sleep over on the weekends, when the residential supervisor was off duty. As part of my devotional practice, I used to close off this room and not enter it for most of the night. In my mind, I set aside this room for the presence of God. Throughout the night I would pass by the room, think about the fact that I could not enter, and be reminded that God was close – just on the other side of the door. Just before the morning staff would arrive, I’d remind myself that Jesus had opened the way for us to come in to the presence of God, and I would throw open the curtain and enter the room. As I walked in, I would thank God that now I was able to stand in his presence. It was a very powerful meditation on the imagery of the Holy of Holies.
So this meditation has, over the years, turned into a sustained reflection on the idea of Holiness. When I was growing up, I used to think of Holiness as a set of rules, laws that divided right and wrong, pure and impure. Holiness had to do with purity – if you follow these rules you are Holy (i.e. clean) and acceptable to God.
There are a couple of problems with this view. The first is that the Bible tells us that God is the one who makes people Holy - not laws or our ability to follow them. The second is that this is just too small a picture of holiness. People aren’t the only thing that can be holy. Objects can be holy. And so can traditions. So while moral purity is an important partof holiness, it is only a part of a bigger picture that includes more than just our behavior.
Making God Tangible:
Let’s look at this idea of the Holy of Holies and the curtain again?
Why would something, that symbolically divides us from the presence of God, make him feel more present to us?
In Gestalt theory, this is called reification - the process whereby something is rendered visible to the senses not by the tangibility of the object itself, but by the structure of the space around it. In this picture you see a triangle – but the artist did not draw a triangle, the artist drew these three Pac-Man shaped things. But the way these things are spaced – allows you to perceive the triangle that the artist intended.
When I was really little, I used to have Sunday clothes. I hated them. They were the most uncomfortable clothes I had ever worn. They were constricting, because they didn’t move as well as my play clothes. They were layered – so they were suffocating, and they were special – so I wasn’t supposed to get them dirty. This is one way we tend to view holiness – as something restricting, suffocating. That view isn’t very inspirational. And it’s also problematic because it only has to do with me. So I decide to take off this vest and wear holes in these pants – in the end it only affects me. For this reason, it is an inaccurate concept.
I’d like to propose a different way to conceive of Holiness one that I believe is a little more inspiring – because it has a larger purpose: I think holiness is when we order our lives in such a way that we make God tangible to ourselves and others.
When we keep the Sabbath – not just as another day off, but really keep it. When we set aside time regularly to pray. When we choose to come to a common place of worship – or when we choose (or refuse,) to do anything out of consciousness of God – we are making the reality of his existence visible to people who do not believe -
It’s a part of our responsibility, as his representatives, as his witnesses.
There is a strong movement in the evangelical church that has been going on for a long time that tries to play down the visible differences between Christian and non-Christian. Not all of the changes have been bad – but sometimes we develop this wrongheaded notion that in order to appeal to the world we need to be like the world. But if what I’m thinking is correct, the more we become like the world – the less able we will be to make God visible to the world. Our role in this world is not just to be appealing, but revealing of Jesus (let people respond in whatever way they will).One of my former pastors, Mark Johnson of (The Salvage Yard) when he preached through Genesis, used to talk about the Patriarchs setting up alters. He told us that we should do the same – by how we live our lives. That’s what holiness means to me. When we start to let the reality of God shape the patterns of our life as a community and as individuals. So that God will be visible to the people around us, but also, so that we will not lose sight of him ourselves.