There’s something about Christmas and New Year’s that prompts us to ask the big questions of life. Extended family gatherings can remind us of our past and the people who have helped shape us. Choosing just the right gift for a loved one can lead us to take a closer look at our relationships—both the strong ones and the weaker ones. We think about where we are in life and where we are headed. We want to believe that we are moving forward in our careers, with our families, and in our faith.
All of these reflections boil down to three key questions: “Who am I? What kind of person am I becoming? What kind of person do I want to be?”
If we were to explore the foundation of even these three questions, we would find one even more basic question underlying them: “How can I be more like Jesus?” This is the question in everyone’s heart, even those who don’t yet believe in him. We all want to have the peace, the joy, and the knowledge of God’s love that Jesus had. We all want to have the same positive and upbuilding effect on other people that he had.
In other words, we want to be holy as Jesus is holy.
So at the start of this new year, let’s explore the path to holiness. Let’s ask how we can become holier this year, and let’s ask how the Holy Spirit can help us follow this path.
An Unrealistic Goal? What kind of person do I want to be? Can I really be holy? Do I believe that I can be like Jesus? It may seem unrealistic or even arrogant to think that we can become holy. Not only do we see our own limitations, sins, and weaknesses, but we live in a world that often urges us to lower our expectations. We are told that life is too hard, so we shouldn’t get our hopes up. Better to focus on just surviving or trying to stay out of trouble and leave holiness to the saints. We are told to look out only for ourselves and to push aside the needs of the poor and brokenhearted.
But holiness is not too far off. It’s much more than a vague dream. In fact, holiness is at the heart of the Christian life. Jesus didn’t come into this world just to forgive sins. He came in order to make us into a new creation. He came so that he could give us the power to live in the holiness and peace and purity that he has demonstrated.
Set Yourself Apart. But what is holiness? There are many different ideas of what it means to be holy. Some think it means living a solemn and pious life all the time. Others imagine it as the ability to convert lots of people or perform miracles. Still others look at holiness as being constantly joyful and happy, even in the midst of great suffering. There may be elements of truth in these descriptions, but at its core, holiness means being set apart.
• God told the Israelites, “To me, therefore, you shall be holy; for I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be my own” (Leviticus 20:26).
• He told them to keep the Sabbath holy by setting it apart from the other days of the week (Exodus 35:2).
• He told them to sanctify themselves—set themselves apart from their everyday environments—to prepare to enter into his presence (Exodus 19:10-11).
• St. Paul urged the Christians in Rome to set themselves apart, saying, “Do not conform yourselves to this age” (Romans 12:2).
• In the Eucharist, ordinary bread and wine are set apart to become the Body and Blood of Christ.
These passages not only tell us that we have to set ourselves apart. They also tell us that God has already set us apart, and he is asking us to live in a holy way. He is asking us to try to separate ourselves from sin and temptation. He is asking us to set ourselves apart in the way that we love one another, serve the needy, and forgive all who hurt us. And most important, he is asking us to set ourselves apart by welcoming his Holy Spirit into our hearts.
The Spirit of Holiness. Okay, so that’s what holiness is. But what does it take to become holy? On the one hand, holiness is a gift freely given by the Holy Spirit. But on the other hand, it is something we have to dedicate our lives to achieving. No one makes this point better than St. Paul. He constantly urged his readers to surrender to the Spirit and to devote themselves to the call to holiness.
For an example of Paul’s emphasis on surrendering to the Spirit, take a look at his Letter to the Colossians. These new Christians had started off with great confidence in the Holy Spirit. However, false teachers had convinced them that they also needed extra festivals and dietary restrictions in order to be set apart for God. On hearing about this, Paul rebuked them for thinking they needed to follow such elaborate, useless requirements. “See to it,” he told them, “that no one captivate you with an empty, seductive philosophy” (Colossians 2:8). Rather, they should keep their eyes fixed on Jesus; he would guide them and protect them (3:1-2).
Paul had a similar message for the believers in Ephesus. He prayed that they would receive a “spirit of wisdom and revelation” so that the “eyes of [their] hearts” might be opened to see how wonderful Jesus is (Ephesians 1:17-18). Revelation, opened eyes, a new vision for their lives—these are some of the gifts that the Holy Spirit had stored up for them.
The same is true for us. We need the Holy Spirit. We need his grace, his power, his gifts, and his consolation if we want to grow in holiness.
The Work of Holiness. So all I need to do is listen to the Spirit? Not exactly. Clearly, Paul was confident that the Holy Spirit can deliver us from sin and fill us with God’s love, power, and joy. But he was just as certain that it doesn’t depend only on the Spirit. We have work to do as well.
No one becomes holy without some struggle. That’s why Paul told his readers not to let sin “reign over” them (Romans 6:12). It’s why he told them to “put away the old self” and to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 4:22; Romans 13:14).
If we were to take an accounting of our lives, we would find a curious mixture. We have the Holy Spirit living in our hearts. We have the Bread of Life to nourish us, Scripture to teach us, and the saints to inspire us. We have a rich tradition of prayer and the promise of forgiveness whenever we confess our sins. With all of these gifts and blessings, it seems that we should be able to live holy lives. But we know it’s not always easy. Something in us keeps trying to convince us that we don’t really need the Spirit and his gifts. It could be our own fallen nature, it could be the whisperings of the devil, or it could be the self-sufficient philosophies in the world. Usually, it’s a combination of all three as they try to lead us astray.
We need to be vigilant. That’s why we need to commit ourselves every day to the work of holiness. We do this by turning to God in prayer as well as by trying our best to keep our hearts pure, avoid temptation, and stay close to Jesus. As we take these simple steps, we’ll find the Spirit filling us with a joy and a peace that we know didn’t come from us. We’ll also become more willing to say no to sin and more eager to reach out to other people with the love and generosity of Christ.
Be Holy. How encouraging it is to know that the Holy Spirit wants to give us the blessing of holiness! How encouraging too that he wants to help us take up the call to holiness every day. God has made it possible for us to become saints. By sending his Son to die for our sins and to overthrow death, he has opened the door to holiness for us. Now we can walk through that door as we are filled with his Spirit. We can be set free from our sins. We can all become people who reflect the love and mercy of Jesus to everyone we meet.
So who do you want to be? How about a saint?