"I encourage Catholics to pray fervently for the dead, for their family members and for all our brothers and sisters who have died, that they may obtain the remission of the punishments due to their sins and may hear the Lord's call: 'Come, O my dear soul, to eternal repose in the arms of my goodness, which has prepared eternal delights for you"'.
~ Pope John Paul II

February 16, 2010

Holiness in God's Servants

In my last post, I touched on the Old Testament understanding of clean vs unclean and on the separateness that befalls a man who has become unclean. In this post, I will discuss the demands placed upon the Hebraic priesthood to avoid uncleanness and to remain holy (i.e. set apart to serve God) over and above those of the lay Hebrew.

Avoiding Uncleanness

The Hebrew people were chosen by God to know Him and to serve Him. The tribe of Levi was chosen especially to serve God by serving various functions in the tabernacle and later in the temple. And the sons of Aaron were chosen by God to alone preserve the lamp, make sacrifices on behalf of the people, and enter (once per year) into the Holy of Holies -- the dwelling place of God.

The separateness, and holiness, that God required his priests to maintain is apparent from the first account of their ordination in Exodus 29:
35 "Do for Aaron and his sons everything I have commanded you, taking seven days to ordain them.
36 Sacrifice a bull each day as a sin offering to make atonement. Purify the altar by making atonement for it, and anoint it to consecrate it.
37 For seven days make atonement for the altar and consecrate it. Then the altar will be most holy, and whatever touches it will be holy.

The sons of Aaron were kept apart from their people for seven days during the period of their ordination during which they were purified with water and the blood of animals. [NB: this method of purification -- i.e. time/blood/water/fire -- will be explored more deeply in the context of Purgatory] Likewise, the altar upon which sacrifices are offered to God must be made holy before use.

The following demands were made of God's priests -- over and above those prescribed for the layman Leviticus 21:

1 The LORD said to Moses, "Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: 'A priest must not make himself ceremonially unclean for any of his people who die,
2 except for a close relative, such as his mother or father, his son or daughter, his brother,
3 or an unmarried sister who is dependent on him since she has no husband—for her he may make himself unclean.
4 He must not make himself unclean for people related to him by marriage, [a] and so defile himself.
5 "'Priests must not shave their heads or shave off the edges of their beards or cut their bodies.
6 They must be holy to their God and must not profane the name of their God. Because they present the offerings made to the LORD by fire, the food of their God, they are to be holy.
7 "'They must not marry women defiled by prostitution or divorced from their husbands, because priests are holy to their God.
8 Regard them as holy, because they offer up the food of your God. Consider them holy, because I the LORD am holy—I who make you holy.
10 "'The high priest, the one among his brothers who has had the anointing oil poured on his head and who has been ordained to wear the priestly garments, must not let his hair become unkempt or tear his clothes.
11 He must not enter a place where there is a dead body. He must not make himself unclean, even for his father or mother,
12 nor leave the sanctuary of his God or desecrate it, because he has been dedicated by the anointing oil of his God. I am the LORD.
13 " 'The woman he marries must be a virgin.
14 He must not marry a widow, a divorced woman, or a woman defiled by prostitution, but only a virgin from his own people,
15 so he will not defile his offspring among his people. I am the LORD, who makes him holy.' "

We see in this passage a difference in the holiness of a regular priest and that of the high priest. For a priest may become unclean and mourn the passing of a close relative, but not a non-relative or a relative by marriage. The high priest must never rend his clothes in mourning or visit the dead -- not even at the death of his parents. Again a regular priest must not marry a prostitute or a divorcee, but the high priest must marry only a virgin. The special holiness demanded of the high priest is due to his special closeness to God, whom we have seen is the source and summit of holiness.

Spiritual Uncleanness

I have so far limited my discussion to physical uncleanness. It serves my purpose in illustrating the need for holiness in those who would serve God, but it only tells half of the story. Exclusive focus on external cleanliness without an attempt to purify our inner selves is the sin of the Pharisee (cf. Luke 11). We see that for the priests of God, the punishments for violating the holiness of God through sin and disobedience could be severe -- even unto death.

We see in Exodus 10 the punishment visited upon Aaron's eldest sons:

1 Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, contrary to his command.
2 So fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD.
3 Moses then said to Aaron, "This is what the LORD spoke of when he said: "'Among those who approach me I will show myself holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored.'" Aaron remained silent.

Their disobedience in performing their priestly ministry was an affront to the holiness of God (cf. Acts 5). Simple disobedience was so abhorrent in those God had made holy (through their purification and ordination) that they were found deserving of death.

In the next section, we will look at more deeply into incompatibility of God's holiness with sin and uncleanness.

February 11, 2010

Clean vs Unclean

We left off with a description of God as the source and summit of holiness in a transcendent way that man, left to his own devices, will never and CAN never approach. We continue by looking at holiness as it pertains to ritual cleanness as prescribed by God for the Hebrews on Mt. Sinai.

The Book of Leviticus describes (among other things) what man can do or come into contact which will make him unclean. For instance, eating pork or camel meat or snakes or bugs was forbidden under the Law as these animals were considered unclean. Likewise, wearing certain fabrics, coming into contact with mildew, a dead body, or bodily emissions would make a person unclean. Perhaps the most obvious case of uncleanness is leprosy, the cure of which is described in several chapters (as well as in the Gospels: cf. Matthew 8:2-4; Mark 1:40-45; Luke 5:12-16).

The restrictions placed on the unclean were strict and highlighted their separateness from things that were holy. From Leviticus 13:
45 "The person with such an infectious disease [i.e. leprosy] must wear torn clothes, let his hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of his face and cry out, 'Unclean! Unclean!'
46 As long as he has the infection he remains unclean. He must live alone; he must live outside the camp.

Regarding those who were unclean during the time of Passover, we read in Numbers 9:
7 [They] said to Moses, "We have become unclean because of a dead body, but why should we be kept from presenting the LORD's offering with the other Israelites at the appointed time?"
8 Moses answered them, "Wait until I find out what the LORD commands concerning you."
9 Then the LORD said to Moses,
10 "Tell the Israelites: 'When any of you or your descendants are unclean because of a dead body or are away on a journey, they may still celebrate the LORD's Passover.
11 They are to celebrate it on the fourteenth day of the second month [i.e. one month later] at twilight. They are to eat the lamb, together with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.
12 They must not leave any of it till morning or break any of its bones. When they celebrate the Passover, they must follow all the regulations.
13 But if a man who is ceremonially clean and not on a journey fails to celebrate the Passover, that person must be cut off from his people because he did not present the LORD's offering at the appointed time. That man will bear the consequences of his sin.

We see that the Israelites who had become unclean were legally forbidden from joining the rest of their kinsmen in making offering to the LORD and from participating in the celebration of Passover. For those who were not unclean, this celebration was considered a moral and legal duty, the neglect of which would cause a man to "bear the consequences of his sin." The consequence of becoming unclean -- even from something as morally innocuous as burying one's father -- was a strict separation from those who were clean under the Law. The demands of holiness in this case are shown to outweigh a man's obligations to God. And this for laymen.

In the next section, we will discuss the role of holiness in the lives of the Levites and the sons of Aaron.

February 8, 2010

The Holiness of God

The title of this post also the title of a book by Calvinist theologian R.C. Sproul dealing with (what else) God's holiness. This is something upon which Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, and probably most other theists in the world agree, so it seems a safe place from which to launch my analysis of a more turbulent doctrine (i.e. Purgatory).

As an aside before starting in on the meat of this post, my Old Testament research brought me to reread the oft-overlooked Book of Leviticus which I remember reading as a boy on my first (so far only) cover-to-cover Bible read. As a Protestant, I thought it was tremendously dull and basically pointless for Christians no longer living under the Law -- excluding a chapter or two on sexual morality. Re-reading this book with Catholic eyes was much more fulfilling. Therein lies the naissance of our priesthood, of Holy Days, and of the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ -- on the Cross and in the Mass. Cool stuff. I recommend it.

So, as I've said, God is Holy. The most common scriptural support comes from Isaiah chapter 6:
1) In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple.
2) Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying.
3) And they were calling to one another: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory."

This should be especially familiar to Catholics, as it forms part of the Sanctus, sung at mass just before the Eucharistic consecration. This past Sunday (much to my surprise), these verses made up part of our first reading. In Jewish liturgy, the proclamation of the seraphs is recited in the Kedushah. Need I mention the classic hymn?

Sproul makes this observation in the book (p 40) mentioned above:
“The Bible says that God is holy, holy, holy. Not that He is merely holy, or even holy, holy. He is holy, holy, holy. The Bible never says that God is love, love, love, or mercy, mercy, mercy, or wrath, wrath, wrath, or justice, justice, justice. It does say that He is holy, holy, holy, the whole earth is full of His glory.”

But what is holiness, and what does it mean that God is holy? We refer to a lot of THINGS that are holy: the Holy Land, the Holy Sepulchre, holy water, the Holy Father, the Holy See, the Holy Grail, holy days, etc. There are two senses of the word holy: to be set apart for a divine purpose and to be morally pure. Holy water is set aside to protect us from evil. The Holy Father is set aside for the unique task of shepherding Christ's Church on Earth. Likewise, we may call the pope, our bishops, or the saints holy to indicate their moral purity, but we recognize that even these are poor sinners in the eyes of God. When we say that God is holy, we acknowledge that He is TRULY pure and in fact transcends our previous definition of holiness. We are holy insofar as we are imitators of Christ. Holy days are holy insofar as they are set aside for the worship and glory of God. He is the source of all holiness and the end to which holiness is directed.

Next, we will look at ritual purity in the lives of the Hebrews.