Ad Clerum on Sanctification

But as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:15,16)

Some years ago, Angela and I took a mission trip to Recife, Brazil. At the beginning of the mission we met with the host team to make introductions and to pray for one another. By way of conversation, I asked the team members if they knew they could have one wish granted, any wish at all, what would it be?

I expected the usual kinds of answers and so was totally unprepared for their reply. The Brazilians said that what they wanted, more than anything else, was SANCTIFICATION! At first, I thought that they might have misunderstood my question or that I had been confused with the language, so I asked them again. But again their response was SANCTIFICATION, and I could tell that they knew what they were talking about and that they really meant it. I must confess that I was shocked, and more than a little embarrassed, because sanctification was not exactly on the top of my personal wish list. But their reply made me think again.

What does SANCTIFICATION mean?

My Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language describes it as “the process of becoming consecrated or holy.” That isn’t something that gets most people very excited. In the back of our minds we often link “holiness” with those otherworldly people who live in convents or monasteries and walk around with their hands folded and a heavenly glow on their faces. It is a good thing, but not for us, at least not right now.

One of the holiest people that I have ever met was also one of the toughest and most practical, Mother Teresa of Calcutta. I met her during our time in Lafayette, Louisiana. She was a truly remarkable person. She was quite tiny – just 5 feet tall – but had an enormous presence. She had come to establish a house for her Missionaries of Charity sisters to serve the poor in that part of Southern Louisiana. The community was primarily Roman Catholic and very excited about her visit, and local business owners equipped the house with the latest household appliances. After Mother Teresa had inspected the house, and thanked everyone for their generosity, she quietly asked that the air conditioners and laundry appliances be removed, “The poor don’t have them and my sisters don’t need them!”

She was equally outspoken at the evening assembly held in the Cajundome – an enormous, multi-purpose arena with 13,500 seats. As the newly appointed president of the Lafayette Clergy Association, I was given a front-row seat and watched a delightful protocol dance as Mother Teresa was introduced. Various Roman Catholic church dignitaries attired in the finest ecclesiastical apparel joined the platform party to add their contributions to the list of lengthy introductions...and after a while Mother Teresa simply dropped to her knees to pray. For a moment the various speakers waiting to make their introductions were unable to see her. But once they saw what she had done, one by one they all dropped to their knees beside her and the introductions came to an end.

While she spoke English with a strong Bengali-Albanian accent she was very easy to understand when she said, “From now on there are no unwanted babies in this town – my sisters are here and they want them and will love and care for every one of them!” She clearly meant business! Holiness is not to be understood as having no interest in the things of this world but rather seeing our whole lives as dedicated to the service of God.

On February 2nd each year, the church remembers the occasion when Mary went to the Temple in Jerusalem to dedicate the infant Jesus to the service of God. It is sometimes called Candlemas, or the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ. It is recorded for us in Luke’s Gospel (2:22-38), where it is described in dramatic detail – including that astonishing prayer from the old man Simeon. It happened to fall on a Sunday one year while I served at Truro Church in Fairfax, Virginia. In my sermon I took great delight in retelling this amazing incident in the life of Jesus and underscored the importance of this act of dedication. In a spontaneous moment of homiletical abandon, I suggested that it would be wonderful if every parent present that morning would follow the example and dedicate their child at the time when we customarily dedicate financial offering of the day. I had not fully thought this idea through nor prepared anyone for this change in the liturgical pattern, and there was a puzzled look on the faces of the ushers! To my great delight, however, dozens of parents ran to the nursery to collect their children and, as I lifted up the offering plates, they all joined me at the front of the church in lifting up their own children in an act of dedication. There were many tears and much rejoicing that day, and while I am not sure that all of the children will remember that morning, I do know that those parents will never forget.

However, dedication or consecration is not something we do once and then forget about. Sanctification is a process. It is an ongoing daily decision to live every aspect of our lives to the glory of God. One of the many reasons I treasure our Book of Common Prayer is that it meets this need for a daily recommitment and provides prayers and devotional resources to strengthen us throughout our lives.

A special memory for Angela and me is when her mother Hilda came to spend the last years of her life with us in Virginia. As Hilda drew close to death, we stood around her bed with our children and grandchildren and we prayed that Song of Simeon:

Lord, you now have set your servant free
to go in peace as you have promised;
For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior,
whom you have prepared for all the world to see:
A Light to enlighten the nations,
And the glory of your people Israel.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:
As it was in the beginning, is now and will be for ever. Amen.

And as we all said “Amen,” Hilda breathed her last breath, and we knew that she had lived and died a sanctified life. May it be so for all of us ...

Your Brother in Christ,