For the third part in my reflections on the Lord’s Prayer, I’ll be discussing what it means for the name of the Lord to be hallowed. It’s archaic language, almost inaccessible to most of us English-speakers. How can we pray something that we don’t quite understand? How should be understand the holiness of the Lord?
“Hallowed be thy name” could bring up some weird stuff in all of us. It’s an odd phrase, and it’s not language that we use every day. I would never hallow someone (at least, I don’t think I would) and the only time most of us have even heard the word Hallow comes from Harry Potter. So what does it mean? It comes from the Greek meaning “to make holy” (hagiazo) – to hallow something is to declare it as holy to set it apart as holy.
One of the strangest things that churches do these days is try to create an awe for the holiness of God without ever explaining what holiness is. Have you ever sat through a sermon that tried to impress you with how holy God is while you sit wondering what it means to be holy? I know I’ve sat through sermons with hazy definitions and vague descriptions of what it means to be holy, so this post will try and define holiness in a little bit of a clearer way to explain what it means when the Bible says that God is holy and how God undermines our expectations of holiness.
Most Protestants would say that God’s holiness has something to do with his inability to sin and his complete moral perfection. Moral goodness may be an aspect of God’s holiness, but it doesn’t capture the full description found in the Bible. When the Bible talks about holiness, it is talking about separation. The book of Leviticus is about cultivating holiness in Israel, not founded only in moral precepts but in an entirely different way of life that sets them apart. Ultimately, Israel is holy because God dwells among them; God can only dwell amongst people who cultivate life in their midst, and the way to cultivate life is to separate from those things that cause or symbolize death. They couldn’t have sex like the nations, they couldn’t eat the same sacrificial food as the nations, they couldn’t mix cloth or food because they were a pure people, not a mixed people. That’s why bodily fluids were cause for expulsion from the camp: they symbolized a loss of life from the body. So, Israel’s Levitical laws were not primarily about moralism (even though there are so-called “moral laws” involved), but about Israel’s separation from the rest of the nations.
Separation in the Bible is an act of creation, sanctifying those things that are separated as part of God’s salvific economy. Holiness is separation-into-new-creation: Israel’s holiness was found in its separation from the rest of the nations, the Levites were holy in their separation from the rest of Israel, the priests were holy in their separation from the Levites, the High Priest was holy in his separation from the priests. To call something holy is to stamp the seal of Yahweh’s ownership on them; a new creation, indeed.
Doesn’t that make God seem so inaccessible? Why would you pray to someone who’s biggest character trait is his distance from us and from creation? Thankfully, that’s not necessarily the case: the Prophet Isaiah shows us a progression of God’s holiness that undermines all of our ideas about what it means for God to be holy.
God is ultimately holy, the seraphim declare in Isaiah 6 as they surround the Throne of the Lord. They form a glory-cloud around him, reminding us of the theophanic glory clouds that descended around the Israelites as they made their exodus journey or the cloud that surrounded Sinai when Torah was given. This is a poop-your-pants, fall-on-your-face level view of God. Isaiah recognizes his woeful state: he is a man of unclean lips appearing before the Creator God of the universe. The first aspect of the holiness of God that the seraphim tell us about is the three-fold engagement with the holiness of God, a Trinitarian hint of the fullness of God to be revealed in the Son and the Spirit rather than God’s moral character. God’s holiness is defined by his existence as Trinity: the eternal connection and self-giving Father, Son, and Spirit together are holy. God’s holy existence is bound up in his communal, Trinitarian nature. God is never alone and his holiness has always been shared and manifested in the manifestation of the Trinity. God’s holiness is his eternal existence in community.
But holiness is not left without explanation: “Holy, holy, holy”, they declare, “the earth is filled with his glory.” God’s glory seems intrinsically linked to his presence in creation, in his being with his creation. The prophet later explains how believers are to regard God as holy: to fear God rather than the nations and their conspiracies; to treat God as a sanctuary, a place of refuge to be dwelt in rather than avoided; it is in these ways that Yahweh is the holy one (Isaiah 8:9-15). Yahweh’s holiness is his desire to act as a sanctuary, a defensive barrier to be inhabited. God’s holiness is his dwelling amongst his people as protector.
The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell within – all of these belong to the Lord of glory who gives blessings to the faithful, righteousness to those who clean hands, who is able to be sought (Psalm 24). Who is the Lord of glory? Who is the holy warrior described? Yahweh, the holy God who can be sought who finds glory in interacting with his creation. God’s holiness is found in his being clothed with creation, affording blessings to those who seek and find him.
God refuses to be God without his bride. As the glory of man is woman (I Corinthians 11:7), so the Bride is the glory of God. But let us marvel as Isaiah makes the ultimate conclusion about God’s holiness: he is holy in as far as he lets his people own him. He is the Holy One of Israel (1:4; 5:19, 24; 10:20; 12:6; 17:7; 29:19, 23; 30:11-12, 15; etc.). He is your Holy One in 43:15. He is the transcendent, but he refuses to be apart from us. He is the Holy One who lets himself be owned.
He is the holy one who lets us pray for our daily needs and our daily struggle against sin. Suddenly, the Incarnation doesn’t seem contrary to his holiness. Suddenly, his incarnation seems to be the only logical conclusion to his extreme holiness.