IN THE GOSPEL OF JOHN Jesus is depicted as offering this prayer for His disciples shortly before His arrest. “Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are… Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth” (John 17:11,17-19). What does it mean to “sanctify” oneself and others?
“To Sanctify” in the Scriptures
The word sanctify literally means to make holy. In the Scriptures holiness is the characteristic quality of God. He is unique, set apart from any other creature. He is, as we regularly say at the end of vespers and orthros, “the Existing One,” the only One who truly and definitively “is.”
To sanctify someone or something means to set them apart for the Lord, to consecrate them for His use. In the Torah priests were thus set apart for the service of God. The priest “… is holy to his God. Therefore you shall consecrate him, for he offers the bread of your God. He shall be holy to you, for I the Lord, who sanctify you, am holy” (Leviticus 21:7,8).
Not only priests but everything used in worship was sanctified, first of all by being set apart. Vestments, for example, were designed to be different from ordinary clothing: “for glory and for beauty” (Exodus 28:2). When the priest wore them he was thereby set apart for the service of God.
Priests and those objects permanently set apart for the Lord were anointed with a mixture of oil, myrrh, cinnamon, cassia and other spices (cf., Exodus 30:22-25). Anointing with this ointment became the most solemn sign of consecration to the Lord. Our Church uses a similar mixture (holy chrism) to anoint churches, altars, antimensia and some other sacred items.
In the Old Testament many other things were sanctified as well. Days and seasons, too, were set apart from time to for the service of God time as feasts and fasts. Particularly at these times the very people of God would be set apart as well. “I am the Lord your God. You shall therefore consecrate yourselves, and you shall be holy; for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44).
Christ’s Prayer Answered
Christ’s prayer that the Father sanctify His disciples was answered when the Holy Spirit came down upon His followers on the feast of Pentecost. They were anointed – not with any material ointment but by being filled within by the Holy Spirit. “And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:2-4).
And so the union for which Christ prayed takes place at Pentecost: an interior union of the disciples with God. “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit,” we are told: the presence of the Spirit within them united them organically with God. The first Christians were thus sanctified, becoming “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).
The Greek Fathers would later describe this process of coming into union with God as theosis or deification. It begins with God bestowing His Holy Spirit on man. But because human nature includes the capacity to grow, deification is not a one-time or static gift. Rather, as St Paul said, it is a process of transformation to God-likeness. “We all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
The apostles went forth as Christ had commanded and, in turn, sanctified others by uniting them to Christ in baptism through the Holy Spirit. Again Christ’s prayer is answered as believers become one with Christ in the mystery of His death and resurrection (baptism) and filled with the Holy Spirit in the mystery of Pentecost (chrismation). Baptism is not simply a rite of admittance to the Church; it makes the believer holy by uniting him or her to the Holy Trinity. As St Paul would tell the Colossians, “God willed to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27) and would remind the Corinthians that “your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God” (1 Corinthians 6:19).
Consequences of Our Sanctification
“You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11). These words are repeated almost verbatim at the climax of our Byzantine rite of Christian initiation to this day. If we have been baptized and chrismated then we too have been sanctified, set apart, and this has results for our lives.
First of all it means that we have a purpose. St Peter defined that purpose for us when he wrote, “[you are] a holy priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God… that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). Our purpose is to be successors to the priests of the Old Testament, set apart for worship, to glorify the mystery of God’s plan for us, making present every day the salvation which was accomplished once and for all by Christ.
One way in which we exercise this priesthood is by “sanctifying time,” setting it apart and offering it back to God in our divine services and prayers throughout the day as well as in the specific observances (feasts and fasts) of the church year. We sanctify time not only by prayer or worship, but also by the godly manner in which we live our lives. “He who says he abides in [Christ] ought himself also to walk just as He walked” (1 John 2:6).
The Fruit of Sanctification
Secondly, when we continually sanctify our lives through these spiritual sacrifices, it bears fruit. We come to reflect what St Paul calls “the fruit of the Spirit” (cf., Galatians 5:22): the love, joy and peace which comes from living in light of the union with God which we have been granted.
Metropolitan Anthony Bloom once recounted the following story, showing how even the most trying circumstances cannot prevent us from sanctifying whatever corner of the world we have been given. “I met a few years ago in Russia an elderly priest who had spent 36 years in prisons and concentration camps. He sat opposite me with eyes shining with joy and gratitude and he said, ‘Do you realize, can you imagine, how infinitely good God had been to me? The Soviet authorities did not allow a priest either into prisons or into camps; and He chooses me, a young, inexperienced priest and sends me first to prison and then to camp to look after his lost sheep.’
“There was nothing in him but gratitude and joy. And that joy, that kind of gratitude against the history of his life was truly an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.”