My Anglican heritage is especially preoccupied with sacred spaces. At our gatherings it looks like it’s all focused on a sort of table.
But for us it’s not just a table. We behave very differently around this table. Every time we walk in front of it, we’re supposed to remember to bow toward it, or at least give it a brief nod. It’s called “reverencing the altar” (yes, “reverence” can be a verb). You can put a variety of things on this table, as long as they’re not at the very center. The center is reserved for bread and wine, either consecrated (that is, made sacred) or about to be consecrated. And most of us call this table, especially the central part, not just a table but an altar. It’s a sacred space.
When I first visited an Episcopal church as a teenage Southern Baptist, I was slightly horrified when I saw all this peculiar behavior. I saw a priest stop and bow toward the altar as he crossed in front of it. I was put off partly because I misunderstood what he was doing. I thought he was bowing to the cross directly behind the altar, and that looked suspiciously like bowing to “a graven image,” violating the second of the Ten Commandments.
The priest later explained to me that he was bowing not to the cross, and not even to the altar, exactly, but to the reserved space at the center of the altar, the space where, he believed, God is poised to become present in a more focused way as the bread and wine are consecrated and shared. Of course, he said, God is present everywhere, but that doesn’t keep God from becoming present in a new, more “concentrated” way when we prepare and serve this ritualized meal.
Huh. I had never thought of that. And then I was reminded that ancient Jewish worship also involved sacred spaces that were set apart, where people were expected to behave differently around them, and they didn’t think this violated the second commandment—their commandment. So I started appreciating sacred spaces. And now I’m obviously not a Southern Baptist.
This week’s Gospel lesson is also about sacred spaces. Sacred spaces mattered to Jesus just as much as they mattered to his fellow Jews who questioned him. And I really want to emphasize where they agreed, because John’s Gospel tends to amplify the disagreement. It probably reflects debates happening in John’s community several decades later. But Jesus was an observant Jew. He didn’t reject Jewish worship, and neither did his first followers. Jesus worshiped in the temple, and so did the first Christians, at least the ones in Jerusalem, until the temple was destroyed by the Romans a few decades later. The temple was a sacred space, not just for other Jews, but for Jesus and his early followers, who, let’s remember, were also Jews.
So Jesus shows up at the temple to worship, but he’s utterly insensed by what he sees. They’ve turned a holy place, the holy place, into a place for everyday commerce.
He was not objecting to everyday commerce. His economics may well have been to the left of Bernie Sanders, even to the left of Karl Marx, but he wasn’t opposed to commerce. He was objecting to where this commerce was happening.
All this buying and selling and currency exchange had been happening for decades, and nobody reported being cheated, but it used to happen on the Mount of Olives, away from the temple. Then the High Priest Caiaphas had decided it was more convenient to move it into the outer courtyard of the temple.* There were lots of faithful Jews who objected to this. Jesus joined their number: “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
When you mark off a space as sacred, there are some things you just don’t do there. True, Episcopalians hardly even pay attention if somebody doesn’t reverence the altar. It’s good thing to do, but it’s a detail that’s not essential in worship. Even as a visiting Baptist, I never felt graded if I didn’t do that. I noticed I had lots of company. Still, if somebody suggested clearing off the altar so it could be used for an after-worship potluck, you can be sure that somebody else would at least take them aside and explain why that wasn’t appropriate. There are some things you just don’t do with the altar.
So, yes, sacred spaces mattered to Jesus. He demonstrated that pretty dramatically. But after he got that out of his system he introduced another sacred space—his own body. He could have been clearer, but as he often did, he decided to remain cryptic. He called his own body a temple, except nobody figured out that was what he meant until after his resurrection. How could they? The only reason we know is because John told us what he meant.
But we have been told. We’ve also been told that our own individual bodies are temples (1 Cor. 6:19), that Jesus’ risen body includes and animates them, that all of us together are his body, and even that we, his body, are invited to gather and consume his body (1 Cor. 10-12). It’s bodies all over the place! Sacred bodies. Sacred spaces. Temples.
St. Augustine summed it all up like an ancient version of Yoda: “If you are Christ’s body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving! … Be what you see; receive what you are.” That’s what we’ve been told.
So, apparently, when we Christians enter our sacred spaces it’s like entering a hall of mirrors. We might focus our attention on an altar, but whether we notice or not, the altar focuses our attention on bread and wine, which are placed on the altar only so they can be taken off of it to be consumed by us, so that we, and not just the bread and wine, become the body of Christ broken open to welcome the entire world to an endless banquet. One sacred space reflects another until all of us, with the whole world, are starting to reflect God’s love in one another.
Is your head spinning yet? Keep reading John’s Gospel, and it will spin even faster, especially in Jesus’ farewell discourse (14:1-16:33), where everybody seems to be mixed up with everybody else: God, Jesus, the Spirit, us—everybody.
So what difference does all this head-spinning stuff make once our heads stop spinning? One difference it makes is that those of us who are preoccupied with sacred spaces should be less possessive about our them. They’re not ours to possess.
Another is that the reason for reverencing God, through the ancient temple, through today’s space at the center of the altar, or through the bread and wine placed on the altar, is so that we can reverence one another.
Reverencing one another is the fullest way to reverence God. Reverencing God in the temple, while it was there, was fine. Reverencing God on the altar these days is fine. Bowing your head slightly at the name of Jesus is fine. Genuflecting in front of the Consecrated Host is fine. But these are fine only when any and all of these draw us to reverence one another, one another not just inside our gathering space, but outside of it, especially outside.
That’s the zeal for God‘s house that consumed Jesus. Let it be our zeal.
*Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew (New York: HarperOne, 2006), p. 152.