Turning to scripture, Johnson begins by exploring the biblical understanding of God’s holiness in the Shared Scriptures, which presents God’s nature both as profoundly transcendent mystery and as “a profoundly relational term that refers to God’s involvement with the world in creative and redeeming care.” (51) Holiness is linked with justice, truth, and glory, and glory is connected with hope for those who are oppressed: “divine beauty flashing out in the world and in particular bent over brokenness and anguish, moving to heal, redeem, and liberate.” (54) In the Christian scriptures, these themes are taken up and applied also to Christ and to the Holy Spirit.
A holy people, then, is a people who participate in that holiness, and thus relate to the world as God does. This is contrasted with an understanding of holiness that emphasizes purity, separation, and hierarchy. This patriarchal strand in the Shared Scriptures cannot be denied, but the previously developed understanding of holiness linked with justice and relationship de-emphasizes it in favor of a more inclusive understanding of holiness in th community.
The Greek term koinonia, communion or community or participation, is the word with which the early Christian communities expressed their self-understanding as a holy people in Christ by the power of the Spirit. “All members are considered participants in the holy life of God . . . because of the gift of the Spirit who is given to them all.” (59-60) The koinonia of Christians called themselves “the saints”, a word which means “holy people,” and has an additional eschatological connotation from its use in Jewish apocolyptic literature. The community is centered on God, and has a responsibility to share God’s care for the world.
The association of the term “saints” particularly with exemplary individuals who have died is in continuity with the remembrance and honoring of such persons in postexilic Judaism, especially martyrs who suffered for the faith. The Christian understanding of Christ’s resurrection, and of the koinonia as participation in the life of God, leads to an understanding of a persistent bond among all Christians, whether living or dead. Paul’s well-known passage beginning “What can separate us from the love of Christ?” not only encourages persecuted Christians with God’s unfailing presence, but joyfully proclaims the communion of all the saints, living and dead.
The beautiful image of the great cloud of witnesses from the letter to the Hebrews recalls the community’s history of holiness and faithfulness under persecution as inspiration and encouragement. The saints who have died and now live in Christ are seen not as persons to be venerated or imitated, but as forebears and cheerleaders! “If they could do it, we can do it,” I imagine the living encouraging themselves and each other; while the saints cheer on the living: “If we could do it, you can do it!”
Baptism, which incorporates people into the communion of saints, incorporates them as equal in dignity and status. A patriarchal interpretation transforms this radical equality into hierarchy by spiritualizing it, which allows the church to co-operate with injustice without quite noticing that it has done so. Footnote 41 relates a stunning modern example of this, comparing two versions of Joseph Fitzmeyer’s commentary on Gal 3:28. The 1968 edition of the Jerome Biblical Commentary states that “secondary differences vanish through the effects of this incorporation of Christians into Christ’s body through ‘one Spirit…’ This verse is really the climax of Paul’s letter.” Twenty years later, the 1988 edition omits that last sentence, replacing it with the assertion that “Such unity in Christ does not imply political equality in church or society.”
Retrieving the inclusive, egalitarian understanding of the communion of saints positions it as a prophetic symbol. “Equality of the saints before God has social implications.” (63) If we look at the communion of saints in this way, and then look at the church and Christian communities today, we cannot but be moved to tears, and to anger, and to work.
I was first moved to take seriously “You are to be holy, as I the Lord your God am holy” after hearing a rabbi reflect on it, at a presentation by the wonderful ICJS. It opened up to me a more general structure: You are to be X, as the Lord your God is X. I spent the next two or three months meditating on this at Mass; every time we heard God’s characteristics or behaviors described in scripture or prayer or hymn text, it made me think Hm, how am I called to be like God in this way? And there were so many different ways!
Understanding the holiness of the saints in this framework of participation in the life of God helps me understand why there are so many different saints, with so many different paths to holiness.
I was intrigued by the tension between saints as individuals, and saints as a company of holy people. The idea that the lives of individual saints were not necessarily to be imitated, but that the act of remembering their lives was itself a source of religious energy in the community reminded me of a phrase in the eucharistic prayer of the Mozarabic Rite. The literal translation was something like “We offer [these gifts] in front of the names of….” followed by a list of saints, some of whom I recognized, some of whom I didn’t & thus concluded were saints of local significance to the Spanish church under Muslim occupation.
The idea that we are not necessarily to imitate the saints, and this quote
The example of such commitment encouraged others to be strong in their faith even when not put to the test. (64)
finally gave me a good answer to a point frequently raised by a dear friend of mine when we discussed saints like Francis of Assisi, who took the gospel injunction to “go and sell all you have and give it to the poor” literally and then lived by begging. “Yes, but if *everyone* did that, everyone would starve!” he would object. But the point is not to imitate the details of their lives, but rather their commitment and perseverance in the face of difficulties.
Discussion questions for chapter 3
- Q3a: What do you think of the understanding of “holiness” in this chapter? Was it new to you? Do you agree or disagree with this understanding?
- Q3b: This chapter contains two examples of the method discussed in chapter 2, offering new interpretations of scripture that are inclusive and affirming of women, rather than patriarchal. Did you find these re-interpretations credible? appealing? disturbing?
- Q3c: In your experience, does calling to mind the lives of those who have gone before us in holiness release religious energy in your life or in communal remembrances? If so, what is that like?