When I went to Holy Land for the first time in 2007 I went on Sabbatical with two friends from Church – Ben and Basil. We didn’t go on a tour. Instead we had a week out there and had a guide for about 4 days of that time to show us around – especially Galilee and Jerusalem. This meant that we made the tour up virtually as we went along. I must admit it was an amazing experience.
One thing that our guide found difficult however, was that I wasn’t very interested in going in to the churches. He would suggest going to say the Church of the Annunciation in Nazereth and I would say no but I would love to look over the Jezreel valley and see how things fitted together. Nazareth is on a hill overlooking one of the most fought over areas of Jewish history. From Nazareth you can see the hills where Saul fought the Philistines, you can see where Deborah fought Sisera. I wanted to see the geography of Israel. To understand why particular places might be important. To understand the physicality of the place.
Our guide wanted to take us to the Sacred Spaces in the Holy Land. He wanted to take us to the insides of churches that were related to the story of Jesus. Places that have been built to commemorate different times in the life of Jesus. They are very different in style. The Mount of beatitudes or the Church of the Nativity are hugely different churches that display very different ideas of what a sacred space might look like – certainly decorated very differently.
Now why am I talking about this? Well because the idea of Sacred Space is very prevalent in much of the church today. It used to be very much the provenance of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches but has become more and more seen in use through protestant churches as well. It came into focus last week when I asked Mother Angela if we could hold Cafe Church in the sanctuary of her church.
Her initial view was not to go ahead because she felt that eating and drinking would be inappropriate in a Sacred Space. Now I’m not writing this to get at her or attack her in any way at all. She is a great friend of ours and I hugely respect her. What is fascinating is how we see things.
Now, what makes up the idea of Sacred Space?
Well there are a number of ideas that are behind it. Now it needs a book to go into it fully but some of the ideas that people express are:
Firstly, the idea that there are places where there is a thinness and opaqueness between heaven and earth. Places where God is especially present. Examples used are God meeting with people like Moses on Mt Sinai, Jacob at Bethel, St Paul on the road to Damascus. This led to the construction of places to mark them – like Peter tries to in the Transfiguration.
Then there is the idea that there are two types of meeting with God. Where God initiates it out of His own choice and desire and where we construct something to reflect the glory of God. In this latter case then there is often a desire to create something that is beautiful. Something that mediates the glory and splendour and majesty of God. That acts as a mediator, if you like, between the humdrum nature of life and the mystery and glory of God. These latter are offered by us to God with the hope that they will be used and sanctified by God.
Of course, wherever we worship says something about what we believe. If we worship in a glorious Cathedral it says something about the majesty and the awe that we hold God in. If we worship in a school building it says something about the neutrality, safety and relevance that we believe in and communicates that God is imminent, near, accessible, personal, and on our level.
There is another aspect that struck me and that Angela and I briefly discussed. This is the idea that when you are seeing things through the concept of Sacred Space that you are bringing the world into this safe place. This place designed to be a meeting place between heaven and earth.
However, in my view I see things the other way around. When we create a cafe church, for example, we are sanctifying our normal lives. We are saying something deep and profound about our normal life. We are saying that when we go into a cafe for a chat with a friend in need that we are ministering there every bit as much as we would be in church. We are helping us open our eyes to the sacred moments and opportunities around us in our everyday lives. Instead of separating out church and life we are integrating them. We are saying that the things that normally we would miss – having coffee in a cafe, eating a meal together, chatting with people – these are sacred things and we can miss the thinness of heaven and earth in these times because we too easily relegate God to a Sacred Space.
I think that the idea that the
Earth is the Lord’s and everything therein
is picked up by Jesus and has Him move us to see Sacred Life all around us. We see it in John 4 when Jesus meets the Woman at the well and says to her
“Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” Jn 4:21-24
Sacred Life is borne out when we have that chat next to the coffee machine at work, when we have a nudge to make a phone call and become the means through which Grace is bestowed. It happens when we dedicate our day to God and ask Him to use us and let Him do so.
It all ended fabulously well on Sunday with Angela letting us use the Sanctuary for Cafe Church and the baptism of baby Naomi. She and I may not agree about whether it is Sacred Space or not but we do agree that we want people to become followers of Jesus.