Out herding the sheep, Moses saw a strange sight -- a bush that was burning but not consumed by the fire. He decided to check it out and God spoke to Moses out of the bush: "Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground" (Exodus 3:5).
A lot of things shifted at that moment. One new idea that arose was the notion that some places are more holy than others.
Religion at that time was largely nature worship. Most folks believed that the sun and the moon were gods, and that plants and stones had magical powers. One of the main contributions of Judaism was to overcome superstition. The Jews were the first to believe that God transcends nature and that you shouldn't worship statues or trees or the sun.
The prophets who came later fought strenuously against idolatry. They were opposed to offering sacrifices and urged the people to make their own lives an offering to God. The important thing was the state of your heart, not how much food you laid at the foot of a statue.
And yet there remained this notion of holy ground. Some places were holy. Such as Mount Horeb where God spoke from the burning bush, such as the Ark of the Covenant, such as the Temple. God doesn't just touch our ideas; he touches material objects and geographic locations.
The holiness of these special places was a sign of the holiness that should be present in all creation. In fact, that holiness was present in all creation until the sin of Adam and Eve. We may tend to think original sin affected only human souls. In fact, it ripped the fabric of all creation. Creation is in "bondage to decay" and "has been groaning in labor pains" (Romans 8:21, 22). Christ's act of redemption has begun the process of setting creation free.
All creation is sacred. Yet its liberation remains incomplete until Christ's final coming in glory when all things -- "things in heaven and things on earth" -- will be gathered up in him (Ephesians 1:10).
In our current state of alienation and incompleteness we seek sacred spaces where we can be brought to some fullness. We create great cathedrals and small chapels, not as places of escape, but as a token of what all space should be like.
Those who have been involved in planning a new church or renovating an old one can testify to the animated discussions which can occur over furniture arrangement. What the furniture looks like and where it is placed in relation to other furniture can create great controversy.
Some might see this as a sign of idolatry -- that people are worshiping furniture. That's hardly the case. Something more sublime is going on. The disputants know, implicitly, if not explicitly, that the art on the walls, the location of the tabernacle and the shape of the building itself affect our understanding of God. We see the unseen God through, but not in, material objects.
When liturgy is changed or a church is remodelled, it can overturn people's psychic balance. It can upset their relationship with the sacred and shake them to the core. Such reform always needs to be carried out with prudence and respect for people's spiritual well-being.
Yet, Christ did not come among us so that we would put the furniture in the right place. He came so that we might have life and have it to the full. In that light, the Second Vatican Council taught that the eucharistic celebration is the source and summit of all Christian living. Worship ought to be related to the rest of life. It ought to inspire right living and it ought to flow from it.
When we think about our sacred spaces, that ought to be the context for framing questions such as: Do our church buildings reflect our call to transform the world with the spirit of the Gospel? Or, are they designed to be places of escape? Do they represent the church as one body, united in Christ? Or, do they portray the priesthood and priestly action as far removed from the lives of ordinary people?
It is good that we set apart sacred spaces, holy ground where we should remove our sandals before walking. But what is the nature of this holy ground? It should be an image of what is to come. It should be a place which symbolizes, not an ethereal existence, but a world transformed.
Think about Moses. He left the burning bush to liberate a whole nation. He had an awesome experience. But he didn't keep it to himself. It was the source for a new way of life. Because Moses stood on holy ground, the people were set free.
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.