Opening the Word: Hunger for holiness

There are a couple of basic errors made when it comes to identifying who or what God is. In the ancient world, it was common to have many local gods, each connected to a specific place (a mountain, for example) or object, such as a tree, rock or river. In modern times, “God” was pushed further away by science (or, better, scientism), until he was turned into a divine watchmaker, as in deism, or a completely impersonal “force” or energy.  

Some people have managed to create an uneasy marriage by insisting that everything is God — and God is everything — and so rocks, trees, snails and slugs are just as much “God” as you and I. Needless to say, this vague and pantheistic entity is not the God of the prophet Isaiah, the apostle Paul, and the first pope, Peter. 

While the ancient gods were often small and even petty, the God “seated on a high and lofty throne” was not simply beyond this world — he had created this world, and he ruled it in glory and might. While the god of deism was content to turn his back on creation, the God described by Paul was willing to become man and die for mankind’s sins out of love and mercy. And while saying “May the force be with you” might sound cosmic, it could never compare with standing face-to-face with Jesus of Nazareth on the shore of the Lake of Gennesaret. 

Today’s readings bring into bold relief three things that characterize man’s encounter with the living God: holiness, humility and hunger. What might be surprising is how these three qualities are found in both man and God, but in essentially different ways. 

Consider holiness. Along with love, holiness is an essential characteristic of God. He alone is holy, sinless and perfect. “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!” cry the dazzling seraphim around the heavenly throne. There is nothing like God, and the recognition of this fact drove Isaiah to despair: “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips” (Is 6:5). Yet God did not remove himself from Isaiah, but drew near to him. The root for “holiness” in Hebrew means “separation” — to be cut off from impurity and sin. God, who is holy by his nature, makes man holy by separating him from what is unclean and cleansing him. He touches man’s mouth, heart and soul with the pure fire of his love. 

The humility of Isaiah, Paul and Peter are evident. They saw and embraced the holiness of God, and they were transformed by it. But the greatest humility is the divine humility of the Son who became man so that men might become sons of God. St. Paul touches on the heart of it in today’s reading from his First Letter to the Corinthians. The Gospel — the Good News of salvation — flows from the love and humility of God, who becomes man, suffers and dies so that we can be filled with divine life. “But by the grace of God,” Paul declares, “I am what I am” (1 Cor 15:10), a true son of God. 

Like Isaiah, St. Peter was overwhelmed by what he witnessed; he collapsed to his knees, astonished. He begged his Lord to depart from him, but his hunger was satisfied only by leaving everything and following Jesus. God hungers and thirsts for us, so we might hunger and thirst for him (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2560). Jesus chose St. Peter and the apostles so they might be able to choose him. 

So it is with us. We were unclean, proud creatures; we are called to be children of God in humility and holiness.

Carl E. Olson is editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.