Over the past two months, my faith community has been exploring how the story of Jesus’ birth reveals the possibility that all of life is holy. Early in November we spoke about sacred time and a week later — one day after the Paris attacks – someone from the community boldly proclaimed the sanctity of every person, regardless of their wrong doings. Recently, they asked me to tackle “sacred space,” and as I thought about the topic this week, I began to wonder if Christmas Eve – the night we meditate on God’s entrance into our space- might be a good time to share some of these thoughts.
Perhaps the best place to start is by asking the question: what do we mean when we call something “sacred?” It seems to me “sacred” is one of those religious buzzwords that is thrown around a lot but whose meaning is altogether nebulous — like fellowship or grace. They sound nice, but their constant overuse has left me baffled as to what role they play in my life.
My favorite explanation comes from religious historian Jonathan Z. Smith, who says it’s helpful to think about sacred space as a focusing lens; a space that guides our attention to objects and actions in order to reveal hidden layers of meaning. I like the metaphor of a lens that zooms in and out because we see movies use this convention all the time.
In one of my favorite films, there is a scene where two characters are dancing and as the scene progresses you realize the crowd standing around them is slowly disappearing, until they are the only ones in the shot. By stripping away the distractions of the crowd and zooming in on these characters our focus is put squarely on the relationship unfolding between them. We know this interaction will be important to the plot of the movie.
In the same way, places set aside as sacred space draw us into the deepest levels of reality. By removing the superfluous distractions of everyday life they help us glimpse the steady presence of God.
In Celtic Spirituality these places are referred to as “thin space,” locations where the veil between heaven and earth has been lifted and there is nothing but thin barrier separating us from the divine realm. As a society we recognize thin space in a variety of places, including houses of worship — such as churches, temples, and mosques—, geographic locations — like the Holy Land—, memorials, pilgrimages, and even inward spaces encountered through meditation.
In the world of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, the Temple in Jerusalem was the dwelling place of God. And in order to connect with God you would have to bring sacrifices and prayers to the temple. All of this, of course, mediated by a priest. Basically, you understood that there was a lot of distance between you and the space where God resides.
Interestingly, the early followers of Jesus rarely met in places set aside as “Sacred Space.” Usually they came together in homes, common areas where the stuff of life happens. In Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, he even goes as far to say that their very bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.
Have you ever thought of your body as sacred space?
Well, according the early Jesus movement all spaces contain the potential for God to arrive and move in our lives.
In the book of Exodus, Moses discovers the sanctity of all space when he encounters the burning bush and is told to take of his sandals because “the ground he is standing on is holy.” In Genesis, the patriarch Jacob has a dream of angels climbing up and down a ladder from heaven. When he awakes he proclaims, “Surely the Lord is in this place — and I didn’t even know it!” (Gen 28:16b, NRSV). In that moment he is graced with an awareness of thin space. God has come close to him, not in a temple, but in some random place the author doesn’t even bother to name.
Yet, there is perhaps no place more ordinary, or more dissatisfying-ly underwhelming, than the setting into which Jesus is born. Luke’s version of Jesus’s birth reminds us that the person we come here to worship, the one millions of people throughout time and space have put their hope and trust in, Luke tells us was born in an animal trough surrounded by people of scandalous circumstances. This is a weird story. And it doesn’t sound sacred, it sounds smelly.
In 2007 my husband David spent a year and a half living and working in Jerusalem as a mission intern with the General Board of Global Ministry. While he was there, he had the opportunity to spend a night in a remote cave with some modern-day-shepherds. Apparently the shepherd gig hasn’t changed much over the centuries, so on this trip he got to experience something akin to the scene Luke describes in his gospel. Each Christmas he posts a short reflection he wrote about that night:
Given the circumstances in which many of us were born — in clean hospital beds surrounded by professionals— it’s hard to imagine why God did not spare Godself the indignity of sheep shit. If I’m honest, it’s hard to read this story and not feel just a little bit embarrassed for Jesus.
While coming to see every space as sacred has all sorts of implications we could unpack here, there is something more I think this story has to show us. You see Jesus wasn’t just born in a manger, the Prince of Peace was born into a minority group living under Roman military rule. He was born into a system of oppression and violence, made worse by the constant reprimand of self-righteous religious leaders. Yet, Christ enters the world not through brute military force, meeting violence with violence, but instead enters the world in vulnerable humility. A way of being he embodies throughout his life, death, and resurrection.
If you’ve read the gospel accounts of his life, then you know that where Jesus is there is healing, there is peace, there is love, he brings it there. Jesus reclaimed spaces as sacred — a subtle but powerful act of resistance to the deathward drive of our human nature.
This makes me curious: Are their places in my life, in your lives, that need to be reclaimed as sacred space? Are there spaces at work, at home, or at school, even the space between you and another person that needs to be reclaimed as space where there is potential for God to arrive. Because maybe there are no “lost cause” places, situations, or relationships, maybe the fact that God chose to be born in cave smelling of animal feces, is a testament to the reality that God can redeem all things.
This idea may sound foreign to us — that somehow we could reclaim space as sacred- but actually I think we see it happen all the time. If you followed news coverage of the Paris attacks last month, you may have heard that the day after more than 120 people were killed, a man rolled up a piano outside the city’s Bataclan Theater and played John Lennon’s Imagine. If you didn’t get a chance to see the video, here it is…
Less than 24hrs after a terror attack — the city is on lock down, people are terrified — and this guy, without even using words, makes us stop and pay attention. Did you see how the sound of police sirens and clean up crews drifts into the background and our focus is drawn towards the music? Did you feel the veil between heaven and earth being lifted? In the length of a song he reclaims what was a space of terror and death, as one of solidarity and peace. It’s a beautiful act of resistance, isn’t it?
That may be an extreme example, but I think we see space being reclaimed weekly in our communities. At my church we offer a sustainable gardening class called, “Landscape for Life.” This is a workshop that helps suburban homeowners care for creation by planting local and native plants in their yards – a simple and yet profound way to reclaim space in our own neighborhood. It’s in these small ways we that we proclaim: this is not a lost cause! God can be born even here. And when we model and witness to these small acts of defiance, it’s as if we’re showing each other the way.
Holy One, we pause to contemplate the story of the nativity, giving thanks for the way it surprises us , challenges us, and at times, unsettles us. As we gather in the set aside spaces we recognize as sacred, we ask you to plant a seed of hope in our hearts; A reminder that you can be born in the places that bring us the least joy, the least peace, the least satisfaction. That by your grace we can live lives patterned after the way of Jesus, reclaiming space as we recognize that you are already there, putting what was broken back together. And when your gentle whisper breaks through the clamor of this world and into our lives, we might be ready to listen. And having listened, to act. Amen.