From the vision of properly prepared worship mentioned in the previous post, it becomes clear that we need a suitable place in which to celebrate the Liturgy. Being able to prepare that venue involves our understanding of sacred space, beauty, and the language of architecture. If all the world has been created by God and exists in Him, then all of created space is in some sense sacred. There is no part of it that does not reflect the divine will and prototype and, as such, it can all serve as a place of worship, prayers, and Christian fellowship. God is omni-present! Nevertheless, we do notice in the Scriptures that, in addition to this general presence of God, there are specific manifestations of the divine person which create an especially sacred space and which occur under temporally and spacially limited circumstances which are occasionally repeated, lending the divine presence a degree of permanence or predictability. Consider the example of the Burning Bush
And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. And when the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I. And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground. (Ex. 3:2ff).
What makes the space around the bush sacred is the special presence of God, not the setting, the architecture, the lighting, etc. Moses’ experience on the mountain while receiving the law must have been similar. Note the physical effects of having been in the presence of God (Ex 20). This is, of course, repeated in the lives of the Saints and the prophets, through whom God spoke. The same thing can be said of the Tabernacle and the Temple, each of which had a most holy (holy of holy) place where God was said to meet with the priests (Ex. 30:36). This space was to be carefully honored, adorned with oils, implements, the ark of the covenant, an altar, vestments, all of which were said to be holy by virtue of their proximity to the “dwelling” place of God. Simply touching the holy oil of the tabernacle could make both objects and persons holy (Ex 30:29) So this was the focal point of God’s manifestation to the Old Testament community. Here the Lamb was slain, atonement made, here the community met God. Notice how often God is referred to as being in the sanctuary (Ps. 68:24, 73:17, 77:13, 150:1) Finally, there is the most obvious manifestation of God’s presence in the incarnation, Emmanuel, God with us. The all-holy one was with us sanctifying everything he came into contact with.
Today God comes to us in the Eucharist. There we have that spacial manifestation of the real presence of God. This presence of God is embedded in several layers of spacial dimension that make the Church itself a sacred space.
First, God is present in the holy gifts of bread and wine, given by the people, returned, sanctified by the presence of the living Christ. The fact that we take these elements seriously is institutionalized in the role of the presider (pastor, priest), who is the only one who can call down the Spirit upon the Gifts. Now, if we take that presence seriously, then we should think in terms of a sanctification of the other elements, layers of the Eucharistic event. And here there are some distinct parallels to the Old Testament via the early Church.
Second, God is present in the Holy Vessels/Altar, those implements that contain and bear the gifts, take on special significance through their contact with the holy mysteries. As such they should be handled with care and respect, and not just by anyone. (Cleaning the holy vessels is not done in the kitchen sink, but by the priest at a special place of preparation; the altar, not touched, not used to support weary servers, but a sacred space touched only when necessary, and only by those so ordained).
Third, God is present in the Sanctuary, the space around the altar, set apart for the celebration of the holy mysteries, is not to become a thoroughfare for those seeking a shortcut, or the promenade of the curious, but rather a space reserved for those administering the sacrament, a place of quiet awe.
Fourth, God is present Nave of the Church, the place of the faithful who have gathered to worship, a place of quiet preparation for the service, a place of repentance, a place of anticipation and not a meeting hall, gossip forum, or the home of a pep-rally.
If we acknowledge the sanctity of these spaces, what should our response be? How should we treat these sacred places? To begin with it should be observed that the operating principles of the contemporary social imaginary put us at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to thinking in these terms. According to Charles Taylor (A Secular Age) there has been a monumental shift in thinking since the Reformation/Enlightenment, a shift he calls desacralization. As he sees it we have gradually dismantled the hierarchies of temporality and spaciality that are characteristic of the becoming of creation. He speaks of a homogenization of time and space, a compressing of the various layers into one. In the case of time, there is no longer any sacred time as in the Liturgy, the feast days of the church year, as in the Sabbath. Now we are simply dealing with one kind of time that ticks on relentlessly irrespective of the divine presence. Thus, it has become impossible to distinguish between a work day and a Sunday (since many work on Sunday), between an ordinary Monday and a feast day. Similarly, the hierarchies of space have been flattened into the one plane of common space leaving us bereft of holy objects, altars, and sanctuaries. I have noticed with some alarm the casual (disrespectful) way in which sacred spaces are treated with people leaning on the communion table as if it were just another piece of office furniture, transforming the high place (apse) into a utility space amidst jokes and laughter. We live in a world in which almost nothing is sacred and this attitude has bled over into and damaged the Church.
What I find so tragic about these developments is that it is precisely in the two areas that indicate the becoming and the potential of humanity that humankind has mounted its assault against God. Temporality and spaciality are the markers of becoming, a movement of human beings toward their divinely appointed destiny. And it is to remind us of that end, that both time and space are (were) hierarchical—the suspension of ordinary time during the Liturgy in order to give us a foretaste of the coming Kingdom, and the real presence of the risen Lord in the holy Gifts on the altar to emphasized the hope of personal communion between the human and the divine. By destroying the hierarchies, we have transformed the divinely inspired becoming of humanity into a mere existence. By removing sacred space, we have condemned ourselves to an endless circling of life rather than movement toward our entelechy.
How, then, should we treat sacred space, or should I say rediscover the importance of a divine hierarchy of space? We could begin by reintroducing an emphasis on human becoming in Christ. Bring back the idea of dynamic movement instead of the sometimes-static view we take of our worship spaces. The Church is a place where something happens, where the Spirit moves. The communion table/altar is not a familiar multi-purpose object that we use uniformly. No, it repeatedly hosts the divine presence and each time it comes with new force to further our becoming. For that reason, it is not even to be touched, except by those authorized and with reason. It is, like the sanctuary and the nave, a dynamic, living receptacle of divine, personal presence.
This reorientation will allow us to view the church as a place set apart for the special manifestation of God. If it is indeed a sacred space, then it has its own hierarchy, and should be approached with an attitude of respect and anticipation. We need to teach our people that when they enter the church they have a right to expect something to happen, something to move them. If this is a place of divine manifestation, how sad it would be if we came away having experienced nothing. If you are going to enter into a sacred space, you will, like Moses before the burning bush, have to remove the dirty shoes of your own sinfulness. At the very least you will have to repent as you enter the space, appealing, as did the Publican, to God’s mercy. Without this personal investment, I fear that we blind ourselves to what God is doing in the Church. Finally, we need to find ways of preserving a sense of mystery. Our callous disregard for our own inability to understand divinity robs us of the awe, the tremendum, that should overcome us in the presence of God. He is not our playmate, our private intellectual hobby. He is the Lord of the universe, Creator of all that there is, He is our Savior and our Redeemer. I am quite convinced that if we would cultivate an environment of sacredness in our Church we would never enter a church the same way again.