I find myself thinking about holiness a lot these days.
One of the defining narratives that has shaped my understanding is Moses and the Burning Bush (in Exodus 3). Moses sees a bush burning without burning up. He goes over to investigate. He is addressed by a voice who names him and commands him to take off his sandals because he is standing on________? That’s right, ‘holy ground’.
This story, along with others gave me the impression that holiness is something a bit stern. I get the image of Moses being scolded for wearing his dirty shoes and dragging mud into the kitchen. Holiness starts to sound like tidiness, something unblemished and unspoiled by the dusty, muddy world we inhabit. So if God is Holy, he must be separate from all the stuff I am not separate from. He must be untouched by all that messiness I am wading through. Right?
A few years ago, I gave up wearing shoes for Lent. It was a foolhardy thing to do. But I have always had a bit of the sporadic-ascetic in me. So for 6 weeks in late -Autumnal Dunedin (45th Parallel) I walked around in bare feet. I also wasn’t driving at the time, so I walked everywhere.
Apart from the cold I learnt something. My shoes had been sheltering me from the real world, the real world of damp footpaths, and stoney paths through the Botanic Gardens. The real world of long wet grass and the worn wooden doorstep of my flat on George St. The pain of the gravel track on the cold mornings, and the utter joy and relief of the carpet when I arrived. During those 6 weeks I was inescapably aware of the world around and beneath me. The barrier had been removed, and now I felt the pleasure and the pain of engaging with the world, rather than staying protected and disconnected.
What if this has something to with the Burning Bush? You see, Jesus doesn’t present us with an image of holiness that is all to do with keeping your feet out of the mud and your hands clean. Jesus instead presents us with an image of holiness that is about reaching out, reconnecting, reforging broken bonds between God and people, people and people, people and creation.
What if the command for Moses to remove his sandals is not about this, ‘Get those muddy shoes out of my house!’ kind of holiness.
What if it God saying, ‘Moses, I am here. This very ground is alive with my presence. Now take off your shoes so there is nothing at all between us. Yes, that’s how it should be.’