Even after I acquired an Orthodox perspective, sacred space was difficult for me to grasp for a long time. I could accept the idea of sacred relics (the Holy Spirit continuing to work in and through the bodies of people who were filled with grace) and sacred images, but space was more problematic. If all the cosmos was God’s creation, how could one part be ‘more’ God’s creation than another part? If Christ’s baptism in the Jordan was the restoration of water to its proper role, hadn’t all of creation begun the journey of becoming ‘New Creation’? Sacred places and items were a part of the faith, but how did they ‘work’?
In the Old Testament, there was clearly the idea of sacred space; the burning bush, Mt Siani, the tabernacle and the temple in Jerusalem. What was hard to tell was whether the ‘place’ was sacred, or the presence of God was sacred and He just happened to be temporally in that ordinary location. Could one space have a different quality than another, and what was that quality?
What was difficult at one time now seems obvious to me, but it has taken some time to form my new perspective. For me, the understanding came with the change of two key concepts:
- Sacraments as God’s uncreated grace being present and offered as (and not just through) the creation.
- Earth and Kingdom as different space-time dimensions rather than different geographies.
Sacraments affirm yet break down the separation between Earth and Kingdom*. We need sacraments because the New Creation has not been fulfilled, and the resurrection is not finished; but sacraments are a reality, a statement, that the two are no longer separated. Sacraments follow the paradigm of the Incarnation. Bread and wine are bread and wine, but they are also body and blood; Jesus is one person, both fully human and fully God. Sacraments are an extension of the Incarnation, a part of the process of uniting all things in Himself.
While all of creation is to be “sacramental”, where each meal is to be a ‘Eucharist’ of thanks to God; the Sacraments of the Church are where this is most consistently and conventionally experienced. We may think of a counterpoint concerto as the most characteristic of Johan Sebastian Bach’s music, but it is not the only music he played.
While from my Reformed Presbyterian background I always had a ‘high’ sacramental theology, I think I was led astray by the discussions about whether Christ came down into the Eucharist, or whether we were spiritually lifted up to be united with Christ. All discussions assumed a flat geography with a constant ‘distance’ between heaven and earth, and any movement between the two was exclusively spiritual. While C.S. Lewis did not call it ‘holy space’, his wardrobe passages between Earth and Narnia is a much better topology. Heaven/Kingdom are more like parallel universes than different coordinates on the same map. It may not be that my theology has improved, but that I have allowed an appreciation of Star Treck and quantum physics to penetrate my paradigms.
The most useful paradigm of kingdom and sacrament for me is the idea of ‘thinness’. Sacredness is where the boundary between earth and kingdom has become thin, either where God pushes through (as on the Mount of Transfiguration); or where a Saint, by grace, has purified and sanctified their life, and are so filled with the Holy Spirit that they become a intersection (intercession) of heaven and earth, the separation has been rubbed thin. The kingdom was always there, within us, but not manifest. This is the life of Saraphim of Sarov, where the boundary of death is thin and fuzzy. While in this world he experiences the light of God and talks with fellow citizens of the Kingdom, and after his physical death he has still not fully departed this earth. He has ‘disrupted the space-time continuum’ and his person has become a mediating wormhole; though not a wormhole between two parts of this universe, but an opening into a parallel universe (or something outside of the universe).
Church alters and buildings are sacred spaces, because like their stone steps, they are worn thin by the regularly footsteps of people and the motion of sacraments. Until the fulfillment of the Kingdom, when heaven and earth become one; any place where sacraments are received, prayers are offered up, or martyrs give their lives for the faith will hold a similar risk.
I would highly recommend N.T. Wright’s podcasts on “Space, Time and Sacraments”. With more time, he does a wonderful job of unwinding the same line of thought.
*I would like to use the work ‘heaven’, but for me it still retains too much cultural baggage of dualism and Platonism (disembodied souls, floating on clouds and playing harps) – it is not physical enough for my likings. I am still trying to find words that express the complex interplay of “…Thy kingdom come … on earth as it is in heaven.”