Make them holy in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I make myself holy that they also may be made holy in truth.
John 17: 17-19
In the prayer recorded in John 17, Jesus speaks much of holiness. In verse 11 he addresses his “holy Father,’ and he then moves to the petition that the holy Father make the disciples holy as Jesus makes himself holy for their sake.
The idea of becoming “holy” can seem to us more than a bit preciously anachronistic. For those of us who have lived through the change in consciousness in the Church precipitated by the Second Vatican Council, we know of a significant shift in our spiritual lives from something of an obsession with becoming personally holy to experiencing embarrassment at even entertaining such a thought. As we read today’s gospel, however, there is no avoiding the fact that Jesus’ prayer for us is that we be made “holy in the truth.”
Our ambivalence about striving for holiness is reflected in the alternate translations we are given of this passage. The Revised New American Bible translates verse 17 as follows: “Consecrate them in the truth.” It continues to use the word consecrate in verse 19, so that Jesus “consecrates” himself so that “they also may be consecrated.” In the translation we have used above, Francis J. Moloney, SDB translates hagiezein in verses 17-19 as holy, as consistent with the adjective for God (hagios) in verse 11. Moloney points out that this is the one use in the Christian scriptures of the the oft-repeated identification of God as “holy” in the Hebrew scriptures. (The Gospel of John, p. 471) . This holiness is not a separation from the world but, rather, a glory that infuses and transcends the world with its created and uncreated energies.
Jesus is holy in his at oneness with the holiness of God. He prays here as, he is about to fulfill his call to holiness (“I make myself holy”) by laying down his life. He does this so that his disciples whom he loves may “be made holy in truth.” It is in fulfilling the call, the mission, we are given in truth that we are made holy, that we express our oneness in the life of the holy Father. The semantic and theological struggle over the interpretation of these verses mirrors the spiritual and psychological tension we daily experience around the call to holiness.
The psychoanalyst Karen Horney says that the neurotic in us expresses itself in “the search for glory.” We want to be special and set apart. We would like to be above the fray, to be chosen and admired models of human life and sanctity, or, if not all that, at least superior in status, knowledge, insight, or human development. Even those of us who would reject theological elitism find our own ways to feel superior to the others. Yet, Jesus himself gives over his life, he becomes the least of all, in order that his disciples may be made holy. This, in turn, however, will require of them that they reject the neurotic solution of searching for glory and accept, in truth, how they are, most significantly, common and ordinary, a truth that impels them into the world in the love and service of all.
In the inmost depths of our Lord Jesus Christ flow streams of honey surpassing every conceivable taste and sweetness. If you can enter there and experience and savor him, you will easily overcome the world, yourself, and everything else, for he will show you the way of love which leads to his Father, the way which he walked himself and which he himself is. He will there reveal to you how his humanity is a worthy offering to his Father. He has given you this humanity together with everything he suffered, so that with it you might boldly appear at the court of his heavenly Father, for he has brought about peace and set us free. You should therefore present and offer Christ, your sacrifice, with a humble and generous heart, as the treasure through which you have been delivered and redeemed. He in turn will offer you, with himself, to his heavenly Father as the beloved fruit for whose sake he underwent death, and the Father will receive you, with his Son, in a loving embrace. See, here all sins are forgiven, every debt is repaid, every virtue is brought to perfection, and the beloved is possessed by the lover in love. In this possession you will find and feel yourself to be living in love and love in you. This is the source of all true holiness, for no one comes to the Father except through the Son (cf. Jn 14: 6) and through his passion and death, which he endured in love. . . .
But if the Son has offered you to the Father together with himself and his death, then you are embraced in love. This love has been given you as a pledge with which you have been purchased for the service of God and as a security with which you have been made an heir in God’s kingdom. God cannot go back on his pledge, for it is all that God himself is and is capable of. See, this pledge and security is the Holy Spirit, who is the dowry or treasure with which Jesus your bridegroom has made you an heir in his Father’s kingdom.
Jan van Ruusbroec, A Mirror of Eternal Blessedness, Introduction