If I were to preach to you about becoming holy, my words would be a pale imitation of the real thing—perhaps even a merely human idea based on my understanding of “the good”. That is why it is so refreshingly brilliant that Scott Hahn has written a new book in which he explores true holiness by unfolding the concept as it is revealed to us in Sacred Scripture. Initially, after all, holiness is to us something “other”, something separate, and something almost terrible in its intensity when we get close to it. God is holy in this ultimate otherness of holiness to which no human response is adequate.
And yet it is God’s plan through Jesus Christ for each of us to participate in that infinite fire of pure holiness.
In Holy Is His Name, Hahn unpacks (as the subtitle expresses it) “The Transforming Power of God’s Holiness in Scripture”. He begins with Genesis and ends with the Letter to the Hebrews, not to mention clear insights from Jewish history and stunning glimpses from the prophets and the Book of Revelation. What the reader will gain from this book is something that nearly all of us in the modern world have lost sight of: A reawakening of our sense of the awesome (or perhaps to us, awful) otherness of God, simply because He is holy and we are not.
There is, fortunately, a Divine “catch” to this awkward relationship. For we can become holy if we cooperate with His astonishing plan to share His life with us. But this process cannot run smoothly if we do not begin with some sense of this terrible otherness which is God’s holiness.
The way we proceed from an initial fearful awareness of God’s holiness to a genuine participation in it is called, in Catholic theology, divinization. To avoid confusion, I should say that we do not “become God” through divinization. Rather, God loves us so much that He transforms us with a share of His Divine life (that is, through grace), a process which begins here on earth. This “engracement” advances especially through our participation in the Sacraments Christ has ordained to graft us into His one Body the Church, and above all through our salvific participation in the life, death and resurrection of Our Lord and Savior in the Eucharist.
We are, of course, expected to participate more and more fully in the transformation God seeks to effect in us, but there is also a sort of “catch” in the classic human problem of devaluing what becomes familiar. It takes a well-balanced soul not to take God’s presence for granted, not to allow the condescension of His immanence to dull our awareness of His transcendent otherness. For truly, we must have the trust of little children to draw near to God without stumbling over our own big feet—our own worldly expectations and preoccupying plans through which we so often keep God at bay, conveniently boxing up God’s mysterious and sometimes terrifying love in the dusty attic of our souls.
Yet is not the present crisis of the Church, and even of Christianity as a whole, rooted in a failure to take God’s holiness seriously, a failure to be, at least at times, spiritually prostrated in awe? Make no mistake: If you read Holy Is His Name, you will find rekindled within you a reverential fire which increases your love of God precisely by reminding you that God is so remarkably holy that He loved you first; and that you are so utterly unworthy that you wonder how you can ever offer an adequate response.
But the whole point is that this is possible through, with and in Christ. It is just this slowly unfolding possibility that is the entire subject and purpose of the very Word of God, both the Word in Sacred Scripture, and the Word made flesh. For it is God Himself who seeks to engage us—to quote Hahn’s subtitle again—in “the transforming power of God’s Holiness”.
Scott Hahn would object to my use of the subtitle “The Book” to describe anything other than the Bible, but his book is a crash course in the gradual Biblical revelation of God’s holiness, and our transformation into that holiness through an acceptance of God’s love. The hermeneutical (sorry, interpretive) key is to recognize that infinite love and holiness are one and the same thing. This is what enables “I am Who am” to add that ineffable personal touch, for in fact God made us for love.
Hahn therefore begins by highlighting the utter inadequacy of what, a generation or two ago, we used to refer to as “luv”, a concept (if no longer a word) that dominates our culture today. He contrasts this with the concept of God’s holiness in Genesis and what he calls the “Holiness Explosion” in Exodus. He explores the special application of holiness to the chosen Jews as they were formed into a people, ultimately with kings as mediators between themselves and God, and culminating in the great Temple and its priesthood. He explores the betrayals of this holiness, and picks up the renewed call to holiness in the great prophets, who not only denounced the horrific rejection of God’s transcendence in sin but prepared the Jews and all the rest of us to receive a more personal “holiness-with-us”—that is God with us, or Emmanuel.
For at length, as Hahn explains, it becomes truly possible to become holy through God’s Son, Jesus Christ, through Word and Sacrament, through “putting on Christ”, or as St. Paul expresses it:
For I through the law died to the law, that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. [Gal 2:19-20]
Accordingly, Hahn explores the life-giving body of holiness that is Christ’s Church, and the very source of divinization for us in Christ’s sacrifice, which is taken up again and extended in our own sacrifices joined to His in every Mass, for the sake of His body, the Church. He explains the special holiness of the priesthood which makes this ongoing process of sacrifice and Godly embodiment possible. Indeed, the culmination of the book comes in Hahn’s exploration of the holiness of God’s covenant with man through the Eucharist, a great theme of the Letter to the Hebrews, in which all times become one, and we anticipate the glory of the heavenly Jerusalem itself.
This is not a technical theological treatise, not a dusty study. It is a highly readable and inspiring account of the transforming power of God. The book concludes with a consideration of how we acknowledge our call to and transformation into holiness today, a transformation which lies at the root not only of every sacrament but every sacramental, every pious practice, every prayer, and every work of love for God and neighbor. Reading Holy Is His Name is a huge step to never taking God for granted again.
I, who often fall into the habit of assuming I need nothing, needed this book. There can be no question that the Church as a whole, as a body of sadly secularized and over-familiar believers, needs this book. It just may be that you need it too: a deeper sense of holiness, of the need for holiness, and of holiness received through the astonishing transcendent immanence of God. What then ought to be our initial and most basic expression of that need? Perhaps we find the right words in the title: Holy is His Name.
Scott Hahn, Holy Is His Name: The Transforming Power of God’s Holiness in Scripture. Emmaus Road, 2022. 172 pp. Hardcover $22.95; eBook $15.95.
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Posted by: ILM -
Oct. 01, 2022 11:22 AM ET USA
There is a large relief entitled “Universal Call to Holiness” that you see when you are walking out the center isle of the National Shrine in Washington, D.C... It has always captivated me when visiting there. Your article has inspired me to order Scott’s book.