The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." So Jesus addressed this parable to them. "What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it? And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy and, upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them, 'Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.' I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.
"Or what woman having ten coins and losing one would not light a lamp and sweep the house, searching carefully until she finds it? And when she does find it, she calls together her friends and neighbors and says to them, 'Rejoice with me because I have found the coin that I lost.' In just the same way, I tell you, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
It is a strikingly convincing claim that something as delicate and precious as a pure soul must be kept safe. In order to not compromise the soul’s cleanness, it must be protected from all forms of dirt. In this logic, the cleaner the environment, the holier the soul. And we instinctively apply this logic also to sacred objects which we keep separate from the profane world; to holy activities which we perform in the solemn atmosphere of consecrated spaces; to religious activities for which we reserve special times of prayer or service.
In this regard, the religious sensitivity of the Pharisees was quite coherent. They had perfected the aforementioned logic. They would teach people to keep the sacred and the profane strictly apart. In their conception, holiness took on the character of cleanliness and purity. Their rules drew precise boundaries in order to protect their aspiration for purity. The severity with which they sought to observe the Sabbath reflects their commitment to keeping a certain time completely clean of all worldly affairs. And their militant rejection of public sinners mirrors their conviction that the soul is befouled by the contact with them. This Puritan view explains the rigorous requirements which, in their mind, were essential for true religion.
Alas, the Puritan view is ultimately confronted with the reality of having to engage in non-religious affairs too. As Jesus would tell the Pharisees, they too had to water their livestock on a Sabbath, for example (cf. Luke 13:15). The human instinct responds to this conundrum usually in the same way in which we deterge physical filthiness: we wash it away, we scrub it off, we clean ourselves. Hence it is no coincidence that purification rituals play such a central role in many religions - notoriously also in the Pharisaic piety.
Following that logic, we ought to clean ourselves regularly since our daily life cannot completely frame out the worldly matters. But even a heartfelt cleansing with water will hardly satisfy the soul's desire for lasting purity. This dilemma disables the common man from reaching a lasting purity and favors the formation of a “sacred caste” which manages to remain in their temples and occupies itself with divine services as much as humanly possible - and one could argue that even the extreme case of a sacred caste could never frame out the worldly condition entirely. Thus, the logic of holiness through separation and cleanness is one that, if anything, gives access to holiness to a select few; and it implies that the way to holiness is an abandonment of the usual human condition; this holiness lies beyond humanity. Ultimately, if we follow the logic at hand, holiness is impossible.
Jesus lived among us and invited us to emulate Him. The people who met Him felt this invitation even before He had to phrase it. They were attracted by His persona, inspired by the wisdom of His words, moved by the goodness of His deeds. Jesus lived holiness. A holiness which spoke for itself. A holiness which proved its possibility in real life. What is the logic of this Christ-like holiness?
It is completely comprehensible how confusing Jesus’ behavior must have been for those people who actively - and probably also sincerely - sought holiness themselves. For Jesus evidently did not follow the logic of separation and cleanness. His heart was the most pure and clean and holy of them all - we believe that and people could feel it. Nevertheless, He did not try to stay clear of the “filthy rest.” In today’s Gospel, for example, He “welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2b). Jesus introduced a new approach to holiness and taught His disciples to apply the logic of cleanness to the motions of the heart rather than to the external behavior. This kind of holiness was based on an interior purification which did not depend any longer so much on the external separation from the world. It could happen in the world. Jesus thus opened the doors for the common people to live purely and holy in their ordinary lives. He broke the monopoly for holiness of the sacred caste. If one belonged to that caste as a Pharisee, one either had to update his understanding of holiness according to Jesus’ testimony, or reject His compelling example and revolutionary Revelation. Many “Puritans” chose the latter. Many priests were eager to protect their privileged position and clang to their “institutional holiness.” In today’s terminology we would speak of the phenomenon of “clericalism.”
Jesus’ approach is essential. For reality never quite bows to the ideas of the Puritan logic. Holiness as a separation from the human condition is ultimately an illusion. And a sad one, at that, if you consider that it entails the rejection of those realities of human life which, being gifts of the creator, make it so beautiful. Jesus’ version of holiness is not based on the abandonment of the human condition but rather on healing it in order to thrive in it. Therefore, His teachings and His example imply an integration of the sacred into the ordinary. He does not rescind the sacred; he does not profane the transcendent; he does not humanize the divine. He becomes man Himself and, thus, presents us with a way of being truly human which is also aligned with the divine.
Jesus is holiness par excellence. The mystery of His life presents to us the fact that He did not shun the lowness of the human condition in order to protect the purity of His divinity; on the contrary, the love-filled character of that divinity drove Him to humble Himself and enter into the most momentous form of contact possible with the sinful world: He became one of us. This mystery, Christ’s Incarnation, presents us with a deeply new version of holiness.
In that version of holiness, the distinction remains between the profane and the sacred, between the human and the divine. But the separation is overcome. Our instinct to distinguish the sacred from the profane remains true, but it loses the rigorous edge and that odd - and somewhat naive - idealism of the Puritan version of holiness. In Christ’s sense, a sacred space is never “too sacred” for a human to be human. In Christ’s sense, a mother should never be ashamed of a crying child during Holy Mass. In Christ’s sense, a disciple should never feel too precious to engage in dialogue with a differing position. In Christ’s sense, fidelity should never become an equivalent to isolation. In Christ’s sense, we should never doubt the possibility to be holy even while engaged in a culture which is none-Christian. To be holy in Christ not only allows but demands an encounter with the world, with its wounds of sinfulness, and with our human condition. To be holy in Christ comes with the apostolic mission of embracing the world with His love. To be holy in Christ means to be clean, not due to a clean surrounding, but thanks to the inner source of grace with which He purifies us.
This is the very role of the Holy Church: to provide Christ’s disciples with the divine sources of grace in their daily battle in the world. The Church is a sacred presence in the world. Sacredness is not sacred in the degree in which it is clean of humanity. On the contrary, the Church’s sacrality consists precisely in the ability to sanctify the human condition. Not by substituting or overwriting it, but by encountering it; if needed, by going after the lost sheep. The Church's sacrality is not compromised by going to the "peripheries;" its sacrality enables Her to do so and, thus, renew and elevate humanity. Holiness is no super-humanness. Christ-like holiness is Christ-like humanness.