Holiness in Holy Week
For Holy Week, I’m reading the second volume of Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth. There is so much for discussion here: the hermeneutical methodology, the appreciate critique and qualified usage of historical critical tools, even the very idea of a Pope writing a scholarly book that engages in the academic fray with all the vulnerabilities that involves.
There are a few places where the book needs some push back—here and there it seems to me that he short cuts the hermeneutical arguments in order to wind up in dogmatically safe territory. But so far those are the exceptions, and I’m finding it to be a pretty rich dish. Here’s a passage that sent my brain a-whirring:
Let us turn to the third sanctification that is spoken of in Jesus’ prayer [in John 17]; “Sanctify them in the truth” (17:17). “I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth” (17:19). The disciples are to be drawn into Jesus’ sanctification; they too are included in this reappropriation into God’s sphere and the ensuing mission for the world. “I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth:” their being given over to God, their “consecration”, is tied to the consecration of Jesus Christ; it is a participation in his state of sanctification. (89)
I find that to be a lovely spot for my mind to sit in this week. Sanctification bears connotations (or perhaps even denotations) for modern Christians of an advanced level of morality, the sort of thing that only epically good people ever manage to approach. John Wesley was partly responsible for this, with his obsessive attention to the particular holiness of individuals, and even individual moments of the day. (Still, he’s the one who said “we need forgiveness even for our holy things,” a line which is among the most insightful bits of theology I’ve ever read.) Most of us cringe, shrug, or even laugh when we hear about these upper echelons of goodness.
The Pope’s words here are especially suitable antidote to this disease. Sanctification is essential to the Christian life, but it’s not primarily about paying attention to ourselves. Holy Week is the perfect time to dwell on this deeper kind of sanctification, because the events of the week are all about Jesus’ consecration, his holy and humble pilgrimage from his Father’s house to the hill where he offered his life. It’s about remembering, rehearsing, and retelling that story, and it’s not (so not) about us.
And yet we are “drawn into” this act of holy-making pilgrimage. This week we tell ourselves into Christ’s sanctification, and find that at the end point of his pilgrimage, there on the cross, just where his trip “from the Father” is on the verge of becoming “to the Father,” his sanctification becomes ours. We are made holy not by our intense moral effort; holiness may and indeed will involve some of that, but it’s not our effort that sanctifies. Christ’s act of self-consecration becomes the place where we live our lives, and that alone provides us with the gift of sanctification.