What Makes a Sacred Space Real?

What Makes a Sacred Space Real? January 16, 2017

On Facebook I’ve been posting pictures of visits to various sites in Israel and the Palestinian Territory. A friend said:

“One of the reasons I have never been truly interested in seeing some of the sites linked to early Christianity is a skepticism that the locations claimed to be “the place” are grounded in verified data. How sure are we of the claims?”

The short answer is that in almost every case we have no idea whether it marks the exact location of some event in Jesus’ life, or even in the history of ancient Israel. And the second short answer is that it is irrelevant to those on a pilgrimage to sacred sites.

One of the problems with the intellectual trap called modernity is the assumption that reality consists of locations in space and time (and all the things made up of interactions in space and time, such as culture and religion). Our task as humans is then to to accurately locate and orient ourselves within space and time. Once properly located we can then pursue whatever pursuits (spiritual, political, economic etc) we wish to undertake.

Thus every tour guide has to deal with the question: “Did it really happen here?” Because we think that we can then be standing in the same place, if not time, as Jesus.

There are a couple of problems with this. First, the idea of fixed locations in space, or to be modern space/time, is no longer tenable from a scientific standpoint. It is quite possible that neither space nor time is fundamental to the structure of reality – however obvious they appear to us.

But even within a more traditional framework we cannot stand in the same place as Jesus. The earth, the solar system, and the galaxy have moved far far from where they were in Jesus time. Even the earth beneath our feet has been shifting steadily. The landscape itself has changed as seasonal changes and the inevitable birth and death of trees grass and flowers transforms the earth. It isn’t a matter of being in the same space at a different time. Despite the fact that we find ancient ruins, the space where Jesus walked has long since passed away. 

Yet being sacred isn’t a function of location in what Einstein called “space/time.” The word “sacred” indicates the place in which the realm of the divine intersects space/time. Moreover that intersection occurs through the presence of humans who alone, so far as we know, are capable of sensing and marking the presence of God. These humans may have marked the geographical spot in which they felt God’s presence, but the actual intersection of space/time and divinity is known through human hearts.

Journeys through what is called the Holy Land makes this amply clear. Wherever it was that Jacob saw angels ascending and descending to earth that space is no longer sacred to anyone. There is no shrine, no pilgrimage to the site. Because no living humans sense the presence of God when they are in that particular place. The moment of sacredness has slipped into the past. This has happened to many ancient shrines whose geographic location is long lost.

But this isn’t true of all ancient sites where people have experienced the intersection of space/time and the divine. Around the world there are places where generation upon generation of people have affirmed that they sense the presence of the divine in a particular geographic location. And it is only this continual experience of the divine in a particular place that makes it sacred. It makes no difference whether there is exact geographic continuity. What counts is the continuity of human experience of the divine.

Jerusalem itself gives us a good example. Since at least the 4th century there has been a church and pilgrimage site over the place where Jesus’ tomb was located, as well as the location where his body is said to have been prepared for burial. And every day thousands of people can be seen waiting in long lines to make their devotions at these sites. And one can see that many are deeply moved by the experience of being in the place.

In 1867 a tomb was excavated on the south side of Jerusalem in a location that made it a candidate to be the tomb of Jesus or at least to be in the immediate vicinity of the tomb. At least some archaeologists thought it was a better candidate than the traditional site. The place is now called the Garden Tomb and it is maintained by a non-denominational foundation. It is lovely. Groups come there all the time as ours did. But it isn’t swamped with pilgrims. It is not a place people feel the presence of the divine. Or alternatively, it appears that it is not a place where God regularly choses to make God’s presence felt. And the same could be said for a dozen other “alternative” sites related to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. They are there. There is a sign pointing to them. There just aren’t any people visiting because it is the sign that draws them and not the divine.

So for a space to be sacred it isn’t just geography, it is God deciding to make God’s presence felt, and the continuity of human experience of the divine in that geographical location.

And maybe even not continuity. The House of the Virgin Mary near Ephesus in Turkey was identified through visions by a Catholic nun (Anne Catherine Emmerlich) in the mid-19th century and has since become a major pilgrimage site. There is no archeological or traditional basis for believing it to be the place where Mary lived and was taken up into heaven. Yet tens of thousands of people a year find this to be a sacred space. I have seen myself how people who have little interest in religion are somehow spiritually transported by walking into the place.

Now there are a couple of ways we can interpret this. One is that the sense of the sacred derives from socialization. We learn in our communities to feel certain things in certain places and circumstances. Once something gets started in a community it is passed on from generation to generation. Yet there is also a theological reason behind the appearance and continuity of sacred spaces, both old and new. The divine will to be known and experienced is not be limited to those locations in space/time approved by either archeologists or religious authorities.

And this suggests that those considering a visit to the Holy Land do not need to look across the stones and olive groves and ask the guide, “Was Jesus really here?” Instead they need to look across the landscape of their hearts and ask, “Could Jesus come here?” If the answer to this question is “no” then there is no assurance from their guide that will turn a visit to Israel and Palestinian Territories into a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. If the answer is yes then sacred spaces may appear in new and unmarked places.

Perhaps a final commentary by Yehudi Amichai, entitled Tourists.

Visits of condolence is all we get from them.
They squat at the Holocaust Memorial,
They put on grave faces at the Wailing Wall
And they laugh behind heavy curtains
In their hotels.
They have their pictures taken
Together with our famous dead
At Rachel’s Tomb and Herzl’s Tomb
And on Ammunition Hill.
They weep over our sweet boys
And lust after our tough girls
And hang up their underwear
To dry quickly
In cool, blue bathrooms.

Once I sat on the steps by agate at David’s Tower, I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. “You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!”

I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

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