Wednesday, July 21, 2010

That's Sacred to Me

Growing up, I heard two contradictory messages from Christian authority figures all around me, though I didn't realize it at the time.

1. God is everywhere and with us all the time. He doesn't need special rituals or spaces to meet with us (as was supposedly the dominant reality of Jewish religion in the Old Testament). "We're not like those Catholics," I was told, "who need rituals, robes and ornate buildings to worship. We don't need all that 'extra' stuff." Buildings, things and job positions aren't particularly "special" to God.

2. "Don't run in church!"... "Don't treat your Bible like that!" ... "Dress in your 'Sunday best'"... "Support your pastor. He's a 'man of God'."

You can see the conflict. There was an overt anti-Catholicism in the Baptist tradition that sought to reject 'elements of the sacred' while intuitively practicing them in many respects. Over the years though, I've come to discover that Protestant traditions rightly maintain this unacknowledged instinct because it has such deep roots among the populus Dei ("the people of God" for all time). What is necessary is not to deny these 'elements of the sacred,' but instead to plainly identify them, properly engaging them in worshiping the Lord. I offer here five categories of "the sacred" that the people of God naturally use in the lifestyle of worship:

  • Sacred Times
One of the most easily acknowledged of these categories is the notion of specific times 'set apart' to God for worship or his particular use. The 10 Commandments includes this with "Remember the Sabbath day to set it apart as holy. For six days you may labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; on it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your male servant, or your female servant, or your cattle, or the resident foreigner who is in your gates" (Ex 20:8-10). Thus the notion of sacred time is introduced in the Old Testament, and carries forward into the New Testament as early Christians gathered on Sunday to commemorate the first day of the week when Christ arose from the dead. Therefore, the Christian Sunday replaced the Jewish Saturday ("sabbath") as the day of the week set apart to the Lord specifically to worship him and enjoy his provision.

However, 'sacred time' was, by no means, restricted to merely a day. Sacred holidays (feasts) punctuated the calender to create the occasional party 'to the Lord.' In addition, even times of day were designated for 'morning and evening sacrifice.' Sacred time is setting aside particular amounts of time for worshiping the Lord and enjoying life with him.

  • Sacred Space
Though not listed specifically in the Decalogue, the element of sacred space remains ever present throughout the Bible. Though it's more easily observed in the Old Testament (i.e. Moses removes shoes on 'holy ground,' Jerusalem as God's 'holy city' and the Temple as the 'house' of the Lord), the New Testament makes no effort to counteract this paradigm. The early Church appears to have understood this level of their continuity with the ancient faith of the Israelites, developing healthy appetites for the 'sanctuary' as designated space for communal worship. The "Don't run in church!" admonishment of the Baptist church betrays a heritage beholden to the ancient Church catholic. What's more? The front of the church building differs from the rear of the 'sanctuary' (i.e. auditorium or 'worship center' for mega-churches). Even if horseplay is tolerated among children after service hours, they still are not allowed to rough-house on the stage, around the pulpit or across the communion table. People of faith have an intuitive sense of 'sacred space' that suggests to them, "the Lord communes with me there in a different manner that he does elsewhere."

  • Sacred rites
It is only natural that protocols and procedures are in place for interacting with the Divine that acknowledges their superior place over the worshiper. This acknowledgment is essential to demonstrate reverence and appropriate respect to the deity one believes is being worshiped. Obviously, one can get around this by simply not believing that a deity is present or listening, but this amounts to a functional atheism unacceptable to the devout. Communal worship in the Old Testament is the very model of rites and rituals all crafted to reflect the holiness of the God being approached through the system of sacrifices. Though all of these would not be exactly duplicated in the New Testament, echoes of them are found in such NT admonishments to "do everything in a decent and orderly manner" (1 Cor 14:40) and worship descriptions as "They were devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching [suggests a creedal confession of faith] and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread [suggests sacramental communion] and to prayer [lit. the prayers]" (Acts 2:42). Even church traditions that claim to be "non-liturgical" demonstrate this principle in how accepted practices naturally emerge as facilitating worship during the gathering of the faithful.

  • Sacred objects
The tradition is long and obvious that God uses stuff as instruments of his presence and power. Whether it is Moses' staff during the Exodus story, the Ark of the Covenant or the hem of Christ's garment through which a woman was healed, objects have been designated by God throughout redemptive history to convey God's 'localized presence.' The fear of overdoing this instinct into a quasi-idolatry should, by no means, retard the tendency to continue what God has instituted in ancient times. If Paul's quotation of Habakkuk that "the righteous by faith will live" suggests a continuity of faith among the Faithful of all time periods (cf. Rom 1:17; Hab 2:4), then God's use of sacred objects to convey his presence among his people is no less appropriate today than it has ever been throughout time. Thus, abusing sacraments in the NT can carry similar consequences to unauthorized contact with the Ark of the Covenant in the OT (cf. 1 Cor 11:27-30; 2 Sam 6:6-7). One appropriately demonstrates reverent care for those objects used for worship today (i.e. Bible, crosses, communion ware, even worship garments) knowing that reverence employed in handling those objects reflects one's reverence before God.

  • Sacred offices
Within a given community, there is always a clear necessity for designated people, set apart and skilled, to facilitate the communal worship rites. This is not merely restricted to the prophets, priests and Levites of ancient Israel. Presbyters, pastors and teachers are listed among the "gifts" God gives to the New Testament covenant community as well. The office of "Apostle" holds special status as the first of Jesus' followers who are trusted with accurately and effectively spreading his message. Thus, it remains necessary for clergy to be ordained by someone that was ordained by someone that was ordained by someone [etc....] ordained by an Apostle and trusted to succeed them ("apostolic succession"). Even now, 'holy men' are consecrated within a given religious community, and recognized as qualified to lead the community in their accepted rites. Being 'set apart' as holding a sacred office, these individuals fulfill an intermediary function, assisting worshipers in connecting with God, reflecting the ultimate and complete manner this function is carried out by Jesus Christ.

These 'elements of the sacred' are clearly evident in the Biblical record, and are reflected in modern Christian practice as well. The most legitimate Christian practices embrace this heritage and seek to maintain the healthy intermingling of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. In addition, we have not even addressed here the concept of 'scared people,' that renders the populus Dei as the official residence of the living God (sacred space), with a lifespan dedicated to God (sacred time), who is his instrument of presence and power (sacred objects), who are invited into his courtly presence through royal protocols (sacred rites) and must bear his image and represent him to the world (sacred office). This notion of sacred people would thus render all sin a defilement of the sacred.

I grew up in a tradition that offered contradictory messages about 'the sacred.' I now operate in a tradition that maintains better harmony regarding these. In my opinion, all Christians would benefit greatly from acknowledging their instincts toward the sacred as given by God, and that those instincts, while needing parameters and direction from Holy Scripture and the wisely authoritative fellowship of the Church, are ignored at our own peril.

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