Among the most famous passages in the book of the prophet Isaiah is the hymn of the seraphim who surround the throne of God and sing: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!” The whole earth is filled with his glory! (Isa. 6:3) It introduces a central paradox for Christians, for it tells us that God is both apart from the world, but everywhere in the world. The song of the angels provides a basis for reflection on the “universal call to holiness”, articulated in chapter 5 of the Dogmatic Constitution of Vatican II on the Church (Lumen Gentium). The hymn also helps us understand our Lord’s curious admonition in Matthew 5:48: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
TO PUT ASIDE
The most basic meaning of the Hebrew word for “holy” (translated from “kadosh”) is “separate”, “set apart”, or “distinguished”, and this meaning is supported by the later Greek and Latin words, “hagios”. . and “sanctus”, respectively. While the Jewish tradition has no analogue to the Catholic institution of holiness, these Latin and Greek terms are commonly translated in the Christian tradition as “holy.” Thus, a saint is the person who is “set apart” or “distinguished.” Just as God is separated from the world, but everywhere in the world, the saint is called to support a life different from the world, but engaged with it. But how?
The difficulty was recognized as early as the 1st century in The Epistle to Diognetus, a Christian’s letter of apology to a Roman magistrate. Christians “live in their country as if they were just passing through,” explains the writer. “Any country can be their home, but for them, their home, wherever it is, is a foreign country. … Christians are found in every city of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. Thus “the world hates Christians…because they oppose its pleasures”.
This does not mean that the lives of these early Christians were still perfect, but it gives us a glimpse of the challenge of striving to live a holy life in a fallen world; to imitate Christ in the world that killed him.
THE UNIVERSAL CALL TO HOLINESS
It is precisely in this difficulty that we discover the ecclesial definition of holiness – of holiness – and that we can begin to understand what the “universal call to holiness” means. Christ, who is “uniquely holy”, according to Lumen Gentium, “gave himself up” for the Church in order to “sanctify her”. In other words, Christ shows the perfection of his own holiness: as the ultimate act of charity, by laying down his own life for the very ones who took it. Holiness is perfected in charity; charity is summed up in the total gift of self.
In his 1988 Apostolic Exhortation, Christifidelis Laici, Pope Saint John Paul II explored this understanding of holiness in greater depth. “The charge is not a simple moral exhortation, he explains, but an undeniable requirement flowing from the mystery of the Church”, for which Jesus gave himself entirely. This call to holiness begins with baptism, so that each baptized person is called to follow and imitate Jesus Christ, until the “perfection of charity”.
This helps us understand what Jesus meant when he told his disciples to be “perfect.” The Greek here (“teleioi”) can be rendered as “executed”, “executed”, or “entirely accomplished”. It is the same root that Christ proclaimed from the cross, declaring the completion of His work on earth: “It is finished. And in perfect Greek tense, Jesus’ statement means, “It is over and will continue to be over.” The perfection of charity was accomplished by the death of one man for all people.
Thus, in Matthew 5:48, Jesus asks us to complete – to develop – the holiness into which we were initiated when we were baptized into the blood of his complete self-giving – his death. This is illustrated not by loving your brother, Jesus explained earlier, but by loving your enemies and those who persecute you. Give yourself to all, Jesus implies, just as He gave himself to those He knew would kill Him. Continue to participate in the work that ended on the cross – by dying to yourselves.
We are called to nothing less than to be like Christ, whose charity was made perfect by his death. Participation in this death is the only path to holiness, and it is the universal call to holiness.
Dr. Kenneth Craycraft is a lawyer and the James J. Gardner Family Professor of Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary & School of Theology.
This article originally appeared in the March 2022 issue of The Catholic Telegraph Magazine. For your free subscription, click on here.