In previous posts in this series (accessed here and here) we looked at the difference between the Christian Faith and all the other religions, and suggested that the main difference lay in the fact that Christianity was not a religion, but rather the saving presence of Christ in the world, and through His Spirit, our participation in the powers of the age to come. We Christians share certain external similarities with the religions, but these external similarities can mask the inner meanings of the things we seem to share. In reality, everything in Christianity is different from the religions.
Take the concept of sacred space. All religions share a concept of sacred space. It was particularly obvious in paganism, where sanctity was understood to attach itself to specific locales, like a sacred tree or a sacred spring. The holiness was there in the locale regardless of whether or not it was recognized; by calling the place sacred, the pagans were not bestowing a certain status upon it, but simply recognizing what was already there. The same thing applied in a similar sort of way to Mosaic Judaism: certain spaces had been consecrated by God Himself, and were now sacred in themselves. The portable shrine set up by Moses and eventually transferred by Solomon to his newly-built Temple was one such holy place. Lay worshippers might go into certain places (like the court-yard where the altar stood under the open sky), but not into the Holy Place behind the curtain. That was for the priests only. And not even the priests could enter further in behind the second curtain, into the Holy of Holies. That was for the high priest alone, and him only once a year, and even then he had to come with the blood of sacrifice (Leviticus 16, Hebrews 9:6-7). Certain spaces were therefore holy in themselves. That is why even to this day pious Jews do not dare to enter the Temple Mount. After its destruction by the Romans in 70 A.D., they cannot be sure of precisely where the Holy of Holies stood, and they regard the space as still retaining its original holiness. It matters not to them that the Temple no longer stands. For them, sanctity attaches to the actual patch of ground.
Christians do not regard their sacred spaces in this way. Certain spaces are considered holy (i.e. the nave and altar of the church building), since they have been set apart with prayer for the purpose of glorifying God through worship. Accordingly, one cannot treat them as any other space and use them for (say) basket-ball games or any other secular purpose. Basket-ball games are fine, but not in that place; that place has been dedicated to the worship of the all-holy Trinity. But the space does not become sacred in itself, but sacred by participation in the worship enacted there. It is holy with a referred holiness, not an ontological one. We do not choose a particular site for worship because we perceive the locale to be holy. On the contrary, it is our choice of the site which makes it holy through the Eucharist held there. And the Eucharist can be held anywhere: if one has an antimension, one can serve the Liturgy in a forest, in a cave, in a field before a battle, and in a private home.
I remember serving the Presanctified Liturgy in a parishioner’s bookshop when I first began my ministry at St. Herman’s. We would meet there after the bookshop closed, set up the antimension on a table, set up icons on portable stands, and set out the holy vessels upon the antimension. While the Liturgy was going on, the space around the antimension was regarded as holy, just as the altar was regarded as holy back in our church. But after the service was concluded and everything taken down, we regarded that space as holy no longer. While the pre-sanctified Eucharist was being served, it was an altar. Afterward, it was just a bookshop, and one could walk wherever one wished. In the church building, of course, the altar area remained the altar area, and the antimension is never removed. The church and its altar are justly regarded as holy, for it remains the place where the Eucharist is celebrated. We Christians have sacred spaces, but their sanctity is of a different kind that sanctity in paganism and Judaism. We regard holiness not as coming from and residing in the earth itself, but from heaven. And that sanctity can be sent down from heaven to any place, for the whole earth belongs to the Lord.
Next in the series: Clean and Unclean
Dear father Lawrence
What do you think of the protestant notion, that the church (the room) is only sacred, when the congregation is gathered, and besides that, can be used for almost anything? One protestant bishop (!) in my native Denmark has even described the church outside of liturgy as being “equal to a public toilet.”
Robert Johannes Ulrich
The notion presupposes a fairly sparse room, one with no iconography or cross or altar–and probably no lingering scent of incense. Historical churches, including those of the mainline Reformation, have long since accepted the idea that a building should set apart for a specific liturgical purpose. Even my old Anglican Prayer Book of 1962 had a rite containing a “Form of Consecration of Church or Chapel” which began with an exhortation in which the bishop said, “devout and holy men, as well under the Law as under the Gospel…have erected houses for the public worship of God and have separated them from all profane and common uses” and which had him trace the sign of the Cross upon the floor with his staff saying, “I claim this place for Christ crucified”. Your Danish bishop not only tramples upon common decency and piety, but also upon the principles of his own Reformation.