“Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 5:5) I walked around Gettysburg, Pennsylvania the last few days. Lincoln, in the Gettysburg Address, says no words spoken or actions by dignitaries can make the site any more holy than the full measure of devotion demonstrated by the soldiers. He wrote stirring stuff, for sure. But what really makes a place holy? I have wrestled with this question for a long time.
The Ground Of Life
John Dun Scotus argues that the created order is a divine revelation. God makes divinity known through this avenue of our experience. In this sense, the presence of God is in all things and therefore all things are holy. But how can one place be considered more holy than another? Is there a change in the quality of the divine presence that makes the spot on Mt. Sinai so holy that Moses must remove his footwear? Is ordinary holiness possible?
We draw life from the ground indirectly through food. Matter changes form through various processes. We can not release the divine from matter. Is life itself sacred? It is certainly inexplicable so far. Does the mystery make life holy or even divine? I suspect there is something to it. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, the divine presence shows up to make some new revelation. But it is also in the Temple every day. When it is taken away, great tragedies happen. So what about the divine inspiration of the prophets and the writings? This is far from ordinary. They offer life.
Presence And Holiness
I am tempted to use two categories for holiness. There is the official holiness proclaimed by church dedications, rites, and prayers. The unofficial holiness is the investment of worshippers in something. I make no argument about the historicity of a place like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Is it really the site later church officialdom claim it is? I always thought if the early followers of Jesus put the emphasis on the Resurrection that later ones did, then who would be allowed to forget such a place? And yet, it does not matter. Pilgrimages made by millions of people over the centuries have invested much of themselves in it. When I visited there in 2006, an orthodox couple on their honeymoon were hoping for their marriage to be blessed by their pilgrimage. The Church is holy just for that kind of dedication alone.
People will argue that either official holiness or that unofficial holiness is real. I do not take sides. But I have only answered part of the question. Holiness is the presence of the Divine. Church officialdom often recognizes what was already established by un-officialdom. The New Testament is a prime example of this. Only books that already had a large number of people recognizing them were considered. No one was able to write a new book for the New Testament when the canon was being settled.
The Ground of Ordinary Holiness
The congregation I serve recently voted to close. The building we used was once a construction office and warehouse. Yet, before the congregation decided to close, selling the building and starting elsewhere was discussed. One argument against that had to do with what the presence of the building served in the ministry of the congregation. I have heard this question being asked in much older church buildings. Protestants often say there is nothing special about the building. But many are fighting to keep those “meaningless” places while disaffiliating from the denomination. Why? Because the building is the focal point of their congregation. It is where they worship, meet, fellowship, and from which they borrow furniture.
I argue there is indeed a sense of ordinary everyday holiness already recognized by religious practice. It has not made it into any official theology. For too many years, clergy have cajoled and berated congregations for not getting outside the walls of the building and doing ministry in the community. We have ignored who these people are in their everyday lives. Do they individually visit sick neighbors? Do they offer help to a stranger whose car is broken down on the road? Are they not doing ministry when they help their own children with homework? Curiously, we think they should be doing that anyway. What makes a special project more of a ministry and a holy task than these other tasks? Does Jesus ever claim only grand gestures will make disciples?
The Holiness Headache
Holiness is often confused with morality. A people are not holy because they are moral. But sometimes they are moral because they are holy. This makes for a good headache from confusion. Can an immoral act make a place holy? Golgotha is a holy place where immoral acts took place. One in particular every Christian believes was unjust. The hallowed ground of Gettysburg is the site of the killing and wounding of 51,000 human beings. The actions taken were immoral. Yet, Lincoln claims the murdered gave their last “full measure of devotion.”
I want to say no to this without dishonoring the dead. My feeling is the blood of these people cry out from the ground. “We brothers murdered each other. Who won and who lost ceased to matter to us the moment we died. The justice and injustice of the causes made us act in hatred and fear. Do not forget this folly.”
I believe this is what these dead men tell us today. Jennie Wade was the only civilian death in the battle. Her only crime was living in the city. What could she tell us? “Remember all of us who are considered in the way.”