Sunday, July 17, 2011

Spontaneous Sacred Space

Much of my praxi fide regarding interacting with the trappings and surroundings of worship gravitates around "elements of the sacred" (which I describe in "That's Sacred to Me"). Of those elements, "sacred space" is a powerful component. I'm deeply moved by space that has been designated, set aside, prepared and constructed with architecture, decoration and layout for the service and worship of God. The sanctuaries of churches will often reflect their character, history and culture. The wood beams, the stained glass, the steps, stage and shape all reveal something of what the congregation and leadership sought to convey simply by having you walk in and have the senses quickened by the environment. The fact the many cathedrals are built in the shape and floor-plan of a Cross is not lost on me; nor does it escape my attention how steps to the altar simulate ascending the mountain to meet God at the peak. "Sacred space" is an element of the worship that reminds me of God's habit throughout Holy Scripture of "localizing his presence." In a stunning condescension to our spatial finitude, the God that is everywhere elected to make himself detectable somewhere. If he remains everywhere then he's as good as nowhere to those who cannot, due to mortal limitations, be everywhere with him. Thus, the omnipresent God "localizes" his presence somewhere as a benefit to those who need him nearby. What makes some space "sacred" where other space is "common?" God is present there, for the benefit of finite creatures, in a way that he is not present elsewhere. Thus I do not begrudge Daniel praying westward toward Jerusalem (Dan 6:10), since the people of God clearly felt his presence in a way there that they did not feel while in captivity. A church sanctuary can have this effect, being reminiscent of ancient worship in the Temple, when God's presence was so localized as to be visible. These things are on my mind when at church.

For this reason, I was particularly excited to have my ordination to the Diaconate performed in the sanctuary of Church of the Holy Trinity. It's dark wood and subtle windows; it's architecture and pews; it's layout as an intimate and rustic space with heritage and character; along with my own history there over the past two years of becoming "regularized" as an Anglican Christian, reading the selected lessons from the Scriptures during the Holy Communion service, processing as the Crucifer, assisting in preparing the table for Communion or serving as Chalice-bearer. That space is not only "sacred" for use in Christian worship, it has become "sacred to me." To those who might think this an unhealthy attachment, ask any martial artist and they will tell you how the "training area" holds a special place in their heart. I was thoroughly and understandably thrilled to learn that the service would take place at Holy Trinity, and particularly in that place where I had undergone so much "training" to serve The Church in this capacity.

Imagine my disappointment, then, to learn just two days before that the air conditioning was not working for the sanctuary and could not be serviced in time for Sunday morning. I was informed that the entire Holy Communion service, with my ordination included, would need to be moved to the parish hall - where meals, games, parties and all sorts of other activities in the life of a church are conducted. Don't get me wrong. It's still the part of the church's building, so it "borrows" a sacred aspect from the sanctuary simply by virtue of facilitating other necessary functions of the church's culture and mission (the kitchen is there for crying out loud!). Nevertheless, comparatively speaking, the parish hall would seem a rather "common space" to hold my ordination service in light of those thoughts regarding "sacred space" that I carry with me in worship and that I also teach to others. Try as I might to be a "big boy" about the news, I suspect some were likely aware of my downcast tone when I responded to the news with, *sigh* "that's okay. We can't have people melting in the sanctuary. It's July in Houston, after all."

The sense of loss in my heart, and possibly even detectable in my voice, revealed an epic lesson I had yet to learn - or perhaps remember that I already knew: that space is not made "sacred" by human hands, but instead by God's presence. The reason THIS space is more sacred than THAT space is because the Lord is there. Ask any Israelite what makes "that tent" more special than "this tent" and he'll tell you, " might have something to do with the PILLAR OF FIRE (that is God's own presence) shooting up out of the top of it." Among the better examples of this are found in Genesis 28, where Jacob awakens from his vision of the Lord and realizes the Lord is "there" in a manner not experienced elsewhere, renaming it from Luz to Bethel ("the house of God").

Yet even this is eclipsed by the example in Exodus 3 wherein Moses is instructed to remove his sandals because he's standing on "holy ground" near a desert sage bush. We are not to take from this a general reverence for near East desert soil or sage brush. On the contrary, "this ground" here is pretty much the same as "that ground" over there. This bush here is just like that bush over there. Thus, for the Lord to declare THAT ground to be "holy ground" was undoubtedly tied to his presence in the bush before Moses. It's not the bush that's necessarily special because, as Tony Evans as aptly stated, "When God's the fire, any 'ole bush will do." God's presence upsets our fixed notions of "common" and "sacred" because he can, for reasons which seem good to him, chose to inhabit seemingly "common space" and by this rendering it not so "common" anymore. This sense of "spontaneous sacred space" is essential to Christian doctrine, for it reflects God's prerogative to inhabit what and who he wants for his own reasons - not needing to consult with anyone for approval or input. His use of the bush before Moses was the first lesson Moses needed to learn from the Lord...that being: "I use what I want. I inhabit what I want. I empower who I want to do what I want. I, even I, and I alone, make the 'common' into the 'sacred' with my own arbitrary will and incomprehensible presence." This makes Moses' objection all the more exacerbating. God did not choose him because he was special. He was being made special by God's choosing of him. God did not inhabit that bush with his fire because it was sacred. His presence as fire in that bush MADE it sacred. Such could be said of the Apostles as well. A simple character study for each would reveal surprising inadequacies for becoming habitations of the Holy Spirit who would come upon them with power, transforming them into Christ's own witnesses to the far ends of the Earth. These "common" men were made not so "common" after all simply by God choosing who he wants, indwelling who he wants, and consulting none before doing so.

Today, the "sacred space" at Church of the Holy Trinity was to be found in a place normally designated "the parish hall." Our own culture understands this. "Air Force One" is not a specifically striped and equipped Boeing 747. While it may be the normal mode of air travel for the President of the United States, it receives that designation only by carrying the President. Should another aircraft carry the President? THAT plane will be "Air Force One" for that time. So also was that place normally designated the "parish hall" today instead transformed into the "sanctuary." For indeed, where God chooses to localize his presence, that place is now sacred for such time as his people can enjoy his presence there. Without even immediately realizing it, my thoughts regarding "sacred space" were actually reinforced and honed by this event. My ordination DID take place in the sanctuary, for worship of the only God who IS carried on with glorious aplomb. Far from anything missing, unexpected benefits and additions arose that might not have otherwise. Just as one example will suffice: the image to the right [click to expand] shows the moment in which the Bishop placed his hands on me to deliver that particularly connection in the ordination service wherein the responsibilities and weighty charge for a Deacon is placed upon a man, and empowered by God for executing that office in The Church. Another Deacon ("Deacon Dave"), took the picture from his vantage point seated with this music team. The unintended consequence of this angle was that, as the Bishop would later point out to me, the glow of the window's light behind us would give the appearance of "the fire of God descending your head as I laid hands on you." *Gulp* This sobering thought might have been been pictured in some other way had the a/c been working, allowing the service to been held in the normal sanctuary, but This picture was uniquely made possible because "the sanctuary" (or "sacred space") moved about 40 yards to the east this morning.

In addition, "elements of the sacred" present in the service rendered it so monumentally special as to leave all other concerns about architecture virtually irrelevant. Even the music selected was alarmingly appropriate, and it was everything in my power to maintain discipline and not leap for joy, losing all composure in the midst of this reverential event. My two sons were able to serve as Curcifer and Gospeler, completing the picture of our household faith and service to the Church as we processed down the center aisle for reading the Gospel lesson. My good friend, Fr. Lawrence, presented me as a candidate to the Bishop, and I indeed felt very "Viking" as it was now my privilege to lead the congregation in the recitation of the Nicene Creed. ALL of the elements of the sacred were present (Sacred times: it was during the Sunday morning Holy Communion service. Sacred rites: the ordination service was meaningful, ancient and weighty. Sacred objects: carrying the Cross, the Gospel, etc.. and having a Deacon stole place over my shoulder. Sacred Offices: the Bishop was present to conduct the ordination, in involved Presbyters and the induction of a new Deacon. and yes... Sacred space: we held the service in "the sanctuary").

I learned this morning, or at least needed to be made to remember, that God may, at any time, create "spontaneous sacred space" with the help of any human hands or the planning of prepared architecture. His presence alone is what is required to make a space "sacred," and in this we had a generous portion of his presence today. My ordination as a new Deacon in the Reformed Episcopal Church did indeed take place in the "sanctuary," and I was short-sighted in thinking it might be otherwise. Thanks be to God that he localizes his presence to make the space around him "sacred," wherever that might be.

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