Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Is Anything Sacred? ("Glimmers of Heaven")

The first time I ventured into a Catholic Church as an elementary student, I was startled by the statues and art in the sanctuary.  It all looked very foreign to this Baptist Sunday School boy, and I was confused why the Catholic church looked so different from my own church.  I was accustomed to relatively bare sanctuaries with little more than some stained glass and a cross at the front.  I likely remembered what we were taught so many times in Sunday school, something I had never paused to question.   Once the congregation had filed out of its pews and the doors were locked behind them, the church was no different, we were told, than any other place.  After all, wasn’t church about the people and not the building?  It is true that our bodies are the Lord’s temple, and He is with us throughout the day.  It’s necessary, though, to take this discussion a step further.  I soon realized that the Catholic understanding of church was much more than simply a warm place to gather on Sundays.

So, what is the purpose and meaning of the sacred and holy—especially in terms of places of worship—and how do Catholics and Protestants differ in their understanding of sacred places?  If we try to step back and approach the nature of the sacred from a new and unbiased perspective, perhaps a good starting point is the opposite of the sacred.  If there are sacred places, then it stands to reason that there are (or were) cursed places or things.  One of the best biblical examples is certainly the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. As related in the 19th chapter of Genesis, “Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the valley, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground.”  (Genesis 19:24)  A similar warning to the unrighteous is found in Psalm 140, “Those who surround me lift up their head, let the mischief of their lips overwhelm them!  Let burning coals fall upon them!  Let them be cast into pits, no more to rise!  Let not the slanderer be established in the land; let evil hunt down the violent man speedily.”  (Psalm 140: 9-11)  King David is calling down the judgement of the Living God on the enemies of Israel.  Of course, the New Testament also contains examples of people and places cursed by God.  In Matthew 10, Christ makes a reference to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah when He instructs the twelve to “shake off the dust from your feet” should they be unwelcome within a town.  Christ’s words in this passage regarding those who do welcome the disciples are important to note, as well.  “As you enter the house, salute it.  And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.”  (Matthew 10:13)

According to the Catholic exorcist and writer Francis MacNutt, places as well as things can be made spiritually unclean, corrupted by immoral use.  In his book Deliverance from Evil Spirits, he notes that ordinary items used in occult rituals seem to continue to hold a dark spiritual influence until the item is removed and destroyed.  Dabbling with an Ouija Board may seem harmless enough to some, but Francis MacNutt points out that this kind of experimentation may serve as a doorway into more dangerous occult practices.  He also draws attention to the powerful effect of the Eucharist or sacramentals such as holy water in the arena of exorcisms, which reveals the power of God transmitted through places, people, and blessed things.  It is interesting that most Evangelical Protestants would likely agree that things and places can be cursed, made spiritually unclean, but they are uncomfortable at the prospect of calling a place holy or sacred.  

Having first examined what sacred is not, how do we edge closer to a fuller understanding of what it is?  A good place to begin might be the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines the word sacred as “set apart or dedicated to some religious purpose, and hence entitled to veneration or religious respect; made holy by association with a god or some other object of worship; consecrated, hallowed.” This doesn’t mean that only cathedrals or churches are sacred places.  As Saint Bernadette taught us with her life of simple devotion, it can just as easily be a “niche in the rock”.  It is a place which has come into association or intimate contact with the heavenly realm.  That’s why going to church is almost like seeing a glimpse of heaven—especially for Catholics who have the fullness of Christ found in the holy Eucharist.  That’s not to say that Christ is not with us in our daily lives and struggles outside of the church, but “where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.”  (Matthew 18:20)  Is it correct to say that Christ is more profoundly present in our church than elsewhere in our lives?  I think that Scripture leads us to no other conclusion.  

What does the Old Testament teach about sacred places?  When God spoke to Moses out of the burning bush, the prophet was told “Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”  (Exodus 3:5)  Similar instructions are also given to Joshua by the angelic “commander of the Lord’s army” at the battle of Jericho (Joshua 5:15), and Jacob’s response of fear and awe at the ladder in Genesis 28:17 again points to the stirring presence of God within a particular place and time.  When Moses receives instruction on the building of the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy of Holies, it’s important to pause and take to heart the meticulous instructions that continue from the 25th chapter of Exodus through the 30th chapter.  As we read in Exodus 25:10-12, “They shall make an ark of acacia wood; two cubits and a half shall be its length, a cubit and a half its breadth, and a cubit and a half its height.  And you shall overlay it with pure gold, within and without shall you overlay it, and you shall make upon it a molding of gold round about.”  With this, sacred art is born.  The length of these highly detailed instructions is several times longer than the space devoted to the creation of the world. As a religious artist I know has suggested, if length of text implies importance, then this gives us a substantial insight into the nature and character of God.  He created us to love and honor Him—not just through our hearts, but though all our senses.  Beauty draws our hearts towards God in reverence and reminds us of his limitless power and grace.  

Many Christians are inclined to entirely disregard the Old Testament’s teachings on the honor and reverence which should be paid to God.  While it is true that Christ now stands as the mediator between God and man, having saved us from the Law, the revelation of God’s character and glory found within the pages of the Old Testament has not suddenly become irrelevant.  As God declared to Moses in Exodus 3:14, “I AM WHO I AM.”  The nature of God did not change with the risen Savior, but the door to Him was unlocked.  Whether Catholic or Protestant, our Lord should never be approached in our places of worship in an irreverent or casual manner; He is not our “buddy”, but the Creator of the universe.  (The reverence and formality proper to church, however, should never discourage us from our private devotions.  If we can put our hearts to “praying without ceasing”, we infuse all that we do with a deeper meaning and spiritual significance.)  The holiness and reverence expressed in religious art and sacred music reminds us that Christ did not come “to abolish the Law and the prophets…but to fulfill them.”  (Matthew 5:17).  

New Testament passages referring to sacred places abound.  In Matthew 21, Jesus clears the Temple of the corrupt moneychangers.  “He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you make it a den of robbers.”  From this passage alone, we glimpse a vision of what Christ desires from us in our places of worship: reverent and sacred places drawing hearts and prayers up to God like fragrant incense.  The transfiguration is another instance of a place made holy by the stirring presence of God, as told in the 17th chapter of Matthew and the 9th chapter of Mark.  God’s presence was so strong that the three disciples accompanying Him wanted to linger on the mountaintop and even suggested that they construct a place of worship to honor the spot where God made Himself so clearly known to them.
Many other New Testament references teach us of the solemnity of church.  1 Corinthians 11:27-29 reads as follows.  
“Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord.  A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup.  For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgement on himself.”

Not only does this give us a deep insight into the true nature of the Eucharist as described in the sixth chapter of John, but it also conveys an underlying seriousness concerning our worship.  How we relate to and worship God is important.  If some of our separated brothers fall into the enemy’s trap of concluding that all rituals, liturgy, and Catholic tradition are frivolous or extra biblical, they must clearly turn a blind eye to warnings such as Saint Paul’s above.

In Roy Schoeman’s brilliant book Salvation is from the Jews, he points out that the very location of Calvary is atop the same mountain where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice Isaac.  Schoeman makes the profound point that God the Father offered His Son on the same hill where the father of the Jewish people was prepared to sacrifice his own beloved son two thousand years earlier.  Genesis 22:2, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love…” is a foreshadowing, then, to John 3:16. The faithfulness of Abraham is glimpsed anew in the perfected faithfulness of God to a world lost in sin, as one covenant stands fulfilled by the New Covenant on the same lonely hilltop.  While the temple veil lies torn in two, the Temple (Christ) will rise again.

Nearly a millennium before the rumblings of the Reformation, Pope Gregory the Great addressed the heresy of Iconoclasm.  This particular false teaching held that all sacred images were idols and sought their removal from churches.  There are indications that the movement itself may have been sparked by a Moslem influence, since that tradition shares a fierce opposition to sacred images.   In a letter to an iconoclastic bishop named Serenus of Marseilles, Pope Gregory the Great wrote the following.
"Not without reason has antiquity allowed the stories of saints to be painted in holy places. And we indeed entirely praise thee for not allowing them to be adored, but we blame thee for breaking them. For it is one thing to adore an image, it is quite another thing to learn from the appearance of a picture what we must adore. What books are to those who can read, that is a picture to the ignorant who look at it; in a picture even the unlearned may see what example they should follow; in a picture they who know no letters may yet read. Hence, for barbarians especially a picture takes the place of a book." (Ep. ix,105, in P. L., LXXVII, 1027)
There is so much substance for meditation and further reflection in Pope Gregory the Great’s words.  Even the Catholic understanding of adoration is explained in a startlingly clear light.  In addition to setting the tone of worship and reverence, religious art was like books for the illiterate.  Another excellent reading concerning our grasp of the sacred and the holy is from the twenty-fifth session of the Council of Trent (Dec. 1543). 
“[The holy Synod commands] that images of Christ, the Virgin Mother of God, and other saints are to be held and kept especially in churches, that due honor and reverence (debitum honorem et venerationem) are to be paid to them, not that any divinity or power 
is thought to be in them for the sake of which they may be worshipped, or that anything can be asked of them, or that any trust may be put in images, as was done by the heathen who put their trust in their idols, but because the honor shown to them is referred to 
the prototypes which they represent... [W]e adore Christ and honor the saints whose likeness they bear...” (Denzinger, no. 986).

Some might persuasively argue that the heresy of Iconoclasm has returned and lives well in some Protestant denominations, where religious art is neither accepted nor understood.  The sadness is that many centuries of sacred art and music are summarily dismissed.  There is often little recognition of their religious, cultural, or historical value at all.

Catholics and Protestants certainly agree on one thing, and that is the sacred way with which we treat the Bible, the inspired word of God.  As Saint Jerome put it, “…ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”  The Gospel of John begins with, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  If we treat the Bible with such honor and reverence, why is it difficult to see the real and substantial presence of our living savior beside us in our churches?  After all, it is not the Bible we worship, but the Living Word (Christ) who gave it to us through the Church.  It is that holy presence in our houses of worship which confers a special grace upon the place—a grace not removed when the congregation leaves.  Churches are unlike ordinary places.  In church, we join with fellow believers of the past, present, and future in praising God.  The mystical body of Christ is no where else so complete as in worship.  As a personal aside, before our family even considered joining the Catholic Church, we used to greatly enjoy visiting the Grotto (The National Sanctuary of our Sorrowful Mother) in Portland, Oregon.  We craved the sacred like a thirsty person craves a drink of cold water.  It made us feel more connected with God and the other faithful across the ages.  In short, it offered us an inkling of what it feels like to be members of the Catholic Church.  It gave us hope.

An alternative way to approach the question of the sacred and the holy is to consider the special way we treat our own homes.  As the saying goes, our home is our castle.  Who can’t sympathize with Odysseus of Homer’s The Odyssey, when he returns home to Ithaca to find his home invaded by unruly and cruel suitors?  
“You never thought to see me back from Troy.  So you ate me out of house and home; you raped my maids; you wooed my wife on the sly though I was alive—with no more fear of the gods in heaven than of the human vengeance that might come.  I tell you, one and all, that your doom is sealed.”  (The Odyssey, chapter 22)
None of us would have our homes treated with disrespect.  Like the cultures before us, we honor and respect the home and family as sacred.  While the people are certainly more important than the place, our homes themselves are not trivial.  They are the places where we laugh, cry, raise our children, and care for our sick or dying.  If our homes are so important to us, then why is it difficult for some of our separated brothers to accept our places of worship as even more sacred and holy?  
After all, churches are not entertainment or recreation centers, but places where we worship the ever-living God, the Creator of the universe.  The desire for a worship style more like entertainment is akin to placing God into a box of our own construction and preferences.  Our culture’s inability to recognize meaning unless in the form of a sound bite, loud music, or a simple-minded chorus points to diminishing attention spans much more than it suggests a changing God.  When Jesus stayed behind at the temple as a child, and his parents confronted him, His response is worth further meditation.  “How is it that you sought me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father'’ house?"” (Matthew 2:49)  If Christ is our brother, I suggest that we see His Father’s house for what it should be.  Whether religious art or sacred objects, these help to reflect the “visible community of faith”.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us in his insightful essay of that same name, the faithful must be the salt of the earth, and the city on the hill.  The light, reflected from our Savior, must beckon to the lost through our living testimonies, and we must not forget that churches should be, above all else, sacred and holy ground where God is loved and worshipped.

One argument put forth by many Protestants is that sacred places are meaningless because of the omnipresent nature of God.  One friend put the question to me like this.  He said look at your wife and family.  Are they sacred?  Look at the sky and the trees.  Isn’t nature also sacred?  One problem with this reasoning, of course, is that if everything is sacred, then nothing is.  Sacred by its nature means set apart and different.  Another concern with this line of thinking is that it seems to draw dangerously near to pantheism.  Saint Francis was one who recognized God's beauty as reflected in his fellow man and nature. In a sense, he revered everything, but he held the greatest part of his reverence and devotion for the particularly profound and real dimension of the sacred found in the Church.  He penned the following poem--reminding us of the layers of sacred from daily life through the holy Sacraments.

"What wonderful majesty!
What stupendous condescension!
O sublime humility!
That the Lord of the whole universe,
God and the Son of God,
should humble Himself like this
under the form of a little bread,
for our salvation" 
"...In this world I cannot see
the Most High Son of God
with my own eyes, except
for His Most Holy Body and Blood." 

As Jeremy Sheehy reminds us in his insightful essay “Sacred Space and the Incarnation,” which is one of eight powerful essays collected in Sacred Space, House of God, Gate of Heaven, our understanding of the sacred also hinges upon the nature and mystery of the Incarnation itself. God relied upon physical material, that is flesh and bone, to convey Truth and forgiveness to a lost world. He could have chosen any other means, but His choice was to send His Son as a man. As Saint Francis made abundantly clear, Creation points to God. We understand that the “fingerprint” of God is found within nature. Now, imagine for a moment that we could be present in Jesus’ own time. Understanding that God is everywhere, are we closer to Christ in front of a tree, or standing beside our Savior Himself?  Clearly, we are closer to Him and His presence, if we are standing beside him, or looking in His holy face. This is yet another reason why churches are not ordinary places. In church, we exit the timeline for a moment as we join with fellow believers of the past, present, and future in praising God. The mystical body of Christ is no where else so complete as in worship. As a personal aside, before our family even considered joining the Catholic Church, we used to greatly enjoy visiting the Grotto (The National Sanctuary of our Sorrowful Mother) in Portland, Oregon. We craved the sacred like a thirsty person craves a drink of cold water. It made us feel more connected with God and the other faithful across the ages. In short, it offered us an inkling of what it feels like to be members of the Catholic Church. It gave us hope.

Through the lens of the sacred, we may see glimmers of heaven’s light.  We can also understand some of the differences between Catholics and Protestants more clearly, if we examine them through our unique understandings of the sacred.  Protestants, for instance, usually see churches as no different from other places—after the congregation has gone on its way.  Catholics, on the other hand, recognize church as a place where we come together to worship and share in the sacrament of the Eucharist.  Since the Eucharist is understood as the body, blood, soul, and divinity of our Savior, we believe that our churches are so much more than ordinary places.  They are blest and hallowed because of the profound and substantial presence of God in the place, as well as in the Eucharist.  The devotion and passion for Christ found among many Evangelical Protestants is praiseworthy.  Since the church is understood the way it is, it also may lead Protestants to have a greater awareness for the presence of Christ within their fellow man and a strong view of the body as God’s temple.  This, however, comes at the expense of a true sense and understanding of the sacred in worship, which means that God is not properly understood for who He is.  This substantial difference in understanding is reflected in our respective theology, architecture, and art.  While the visiting student or newcomer may be caught off guard by the artwork and sense of reverence found in a Catholic Church, this is the way we treat our Father’s house.  After all, the Catholic understanding of church was and is more than simply a warm place to gather on Sundays.  It’s all about Him—not us.

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