The word of the day is “holy.” What categories do we use to speak of God? Life, love, goodness, and truth might come to mind. Or we might think of righteousness, glory, or grace. Then too, there are the terms omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence. All these are ways of thinking of God. But in today’s reading of 2 Corinthians 6:16-7:1, Paul reminds us of the fundamental character of God when he advises his congregation in Corinth to “perfect holiness in the fear of God” (vs. 7:1).
God’s Holiness, His “Otherness”
In 1 Peter, the apostle underscores Paul’s admonition when he writes, “Be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16 quoting Leviticus 11:44). Note that our holiness, however, has its foundation and source in the holiness of God. The Greek word for holy refers to a sense of “otherness” (Strong’s #40). Thus, holiness is a primary attribute of God, who is altogether distinct from His creation. Therefore, when the Divine Liturgy speaks of God, the priest declares that God is “ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible” (St-Tikhon’s 1984, 65). Thus, the Orthodox believe that God is best “defined” by such negatives that speak of his “otherness.”
However, the God who is “other” chose to make human beings in His image. He intended to relate in love to human persons, the crown of His creation. Though the fall of Adam and Eve into sin corrupted our resemblance to God, the Almighty promised to restore that image through a Chosen People. Thus, in our reading, St. Paul quoted the prophet Ezekiel who spoke the Word of God, “I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (vs. 6:16 quoting Ezekiel 37:26).
To Be a Holy Temple One Must be Cleansed
In our reading, St. Paul writes that the faithful in Corinth are heirs of these promises in Christ. Redeemed by the blood of Christ, they are now “the temple of the living God” (vs. 16). But to be a place where God dwells on earth, they must “cleanse themselves from all the filthiness of the flesh” that stains their souls (vs. 7:1). You see, for the Holy God to reside in them, they must be “set apart” as places of worship are set apart. And this means that they must reflect the qualities of God. If God is good, then they must be good. If God is love, they must be loving. If God is righteous, they must be righteous. Most of all, if God is holy, they must be holy.
Holiness Begins with the Fear of God
If God is truth, goodness, love, and righteousness, then nothing untruthful, nothing unloving, nothing unrighteous can stand and survive in the presence of His otherness. Therefore, His living temples must be kept holy so that He may dwell in them. To begin with, believers must “fear” God in the sense of respecting His “otherness.” As Chrysostom suggests, the fearful realization that nothing unholy can prevail in God’s presence is sufficient motivation for the faithful to cleanse their hearts and minds from all that is unholy. Then, by God’s grace, they may be worthy temples in which God may dwell (NfPf1: 13).
For Reflection From the Philokalia
The Orthodox believe that our human vocation is to become “like” God in whose “image” we are made. In the Philokalia, Nikitas Stithtos writes about the “likeness” to God for which we should strive with the help of the Spirit. He teaches, “’The Lord is just and holy’ (cf. Ps. 145:17). We are also in the likeness of God if we possess uprightness and goodness for ‘good and upright is the Lord’ (Ps. 25:8)); or if we are conscious of wisdom and spiritual knowledge, for these are within Him, and He is called Wisdom and Logos; or if we possess holiness and perfection, since He Himself said, ‘You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matt. 5:48), and ‘You must be holy for I am holy (Lev. 11:44; 1 Pet. 1:16), or if we are humble and gentle, for it is written ‘Learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls’” (Matt. 11:29).
St-Tikhon’s. 1984. Service Books of the Orthodox Church. Third ed. South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon’s Monastery Press.