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Thursday, August 9, 2012

Sacred Space 3


While pondering a recent conversation I had with an acquaintance on the topic of sacred space {it may be helpful for you to review what I’ve written on this already, by going here and here), I tripped over a statement made by C.S. Lewis in his little work titled “Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer” that gently and perceptively speaks to the subject:
“It is well to have specifically holy places, and things, and days, for, without these focal points or reminders, the belief that all is holy and “big with God” will soon dwindle into mere sentiment. But if these holy places, things, and days cease to remind us, if they obliterate our awareness that all ground is holy and every bush (could we but perceive it) a Burning Bush, then the hallows begin to do harm. Hence both the necessity, and the perennial danger, of “religion”” (Letter XIV, p. 75).
Lewis has hit on at least two risks that accompany the subject. But he has also proposed a healthy way forward.

The first risk is the democratization of all places so that there are no sacred spaces.  In a Protestant reaction to an over-hallowing of shrines, trinkets and time, we have thrown baby, bath tub, soap and towel out with the bath water; at least on the ecclesiastical stage. We have touted the notion that there is no sacred-secular divide. Our reasoning for this seems to be that we want to emphatically proclaim that there is no square inch where Jesus is not Lord. But in doing this very Christ-exalting thing we have inadvertently trivialized His reign to the point of tritest of trifles (as well as His incarnation, holy life, death and resurrection). To make all things “sacred” is to make no-thing sacred. That is the normal outcome of placing everything or every spot into the temple precincts. To put it in the perceptive, though diabolical, words of Syndrome, from the movie “The Incredibles”, when explaining why he was going to mass market his mock super powers, “And when everyone's super... [chuckles evilly] - no one will be.”

The second risk noted by Lewis is the oversacralizing of places, things and times; especially to the point of distraction. This happens when, for example, a place or ornament becomes so religiously significant in a person’s sanctification that he can’t pray or worship without it. Like the Protestant I met once who visited the “Holy Land” just to get baptized in the Jordan River. Or the small vial of anointing oil I used to have that was made from olives out of Israel, and was marketed to me as being able to really do the trick for the sick because it was “Holy Land” oil.

The healthy way Lewis has proposed is to accept that there are sacred spaces, places and moments in our world, without going overboard. To soberly esteem such stirs up our minds to remember that there is the potential for sacredness in all things. If that sacredness of all things is not fully enjoyed now, then at least it will be when, “Jesus who died shall be satisfied, and earth and heav’n be one.”

Nevertheless, the recognition that there are some places, spaces and moments that are sacred should not be allowed to slide into idolizing those sacred objects, events and locations. To do so is to turn away from God Himself and to set up competitors. It is to come to love the things more than the giver of the things (to paraphrase St. Augustine). It seems to me that this happens when consecrated places etc. become used as talismans, as when rebellious, faith-breaking Judah thought they were safe because they still had the temple of the LORD (Jeremiah 7.4-11); or as when the worthless priests, Hophni and Phinehas, brought the ark of the covenant into battle, thinking it would give them automatic success (1 Samuel 4.3-11).

In fact, God Himself will not allow the sacred boundaries He established to be idolized. For example, God selected Shiloh to be the place for His tabernacle (thus making the place sacred). But then God desecrated that sacred space when it became abused and misused (See Psalm 78.60-61; Jeremiah 7.13-14 and 26.4-7; but also, think back over the story of Hophni and Phinehas mentioned above).

Now, having heard from Lewis on this subject, we ought to move further up and further in and ask if there is anything in God’s sacred writings, whether by clear direction or through good and necessary deduction, that lead us along this line of thinking. I believe there are, but time and the reader’s attention span will only allow me to make a few thought-launching observations.

Long before the Exodus and God’s specific instructions on establishing a holy structure (tabernacle, and later the temple), there was a human urge to set apart places as hallowed, and for calling on the name of the LORD. Abel, Noah, Abram/Abraham, Isaac and Jacob built worship areas to call on the name of the LORD. Abram, Isaac and Jacob built a structure to commemorate the LORD’s appearing to them (Genesis 12.6-8; 26.23-25; 35.7). Jacob even placed the name of God on one structure he built, commemorating God’s deliverance and rescue:
“And Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, on his way from Paddan-aram, and he camped before the city. And from the sons of Hamor, Shechem's father, he bought for a hundred pieces of money the piece of land on which he had pitched his tent. There he erected an altar and called it El-Elohe-Israel” (Genesis 33.18-20).
These places became sanctified, or set apart, as places to memorialize (1) the worshipper’s loyalty to God; (2) God’s presence and promises; and (3) God’s salvific faithfulness. And these holy places, hallowed for the sake of memory and recollection, appear to have met with God’s acceptance and approval.

I realize that what is descriptive in these historical narratives is not necessarily prescriptive. I also recognize where these episodes fit in the flow of God’s story (the increasing centralization of worship in the God-ordained temple, and then Christ becoming the temple where we come into communion with the Father). Nevertheless, if we who are in Christ Jesus are the descendants of Abraham and heirs according to the promise (Galatians 3.29), and New Covenant worship is intentionally decentralized away from a singular, central temple (John 4.21) so that
“from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering. For my name will be great among the nations, says the LORD of hosts” (Malachi 1.11).
then it would then appear that God’s intended plan is for us to also set apart (sanctify) places that will be a memorial of (1) our loyalty to God; (2) God’s presence and promises; and (3) God’s salvific faithfulness demonstrated for us in Christ crucified for us (Romans 5.8). But this hallowing particular space should be a cue to the larger, cosmic-wide redemption Christ has inaugurated at His cross, resurrection and enthronement, and will complete at His appearing (Romans 8.18-23).

I will stop here for the time being. But it should be obvious that there are more aspects of hallowing, or consecration, that are in Scripture. For example, the holy priesthood of God’s people in Christ (1 Peter 2.9-10, and also that Christians are called “saints” – holy ones); and the weekly Sabbath (Exodus 20.8-11), to only name two.

In conclusion, I think Lewis hit the target square in the center. If we don’t have sacred places, things or times, then we will become blind and numb to the sacred. But if we over-elevate the sacred stuffs, then we create demanding deities who will insist upon our utter allegiance, and we will lose the God-given value of His creatures and creation.
{Please keep in mind that these thoughts are (1) me thinking out loud; and (2) are not reflecting any denominational/ecclesial official statement}
Mike

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