Sacred Space in Biblical Perspective
by John G. Gibbs, PhD
Biblical literature presents as much variety of sacred space
as we ourselves have experienced. "The Holy" may be known in tabernacle
or Temple but also anywhere else, whether near or far, whether
among the stars or among the words of Holy Writ, whether among
the People of God or beyond them.
There was no more sacred space,
according to Hebrew Scripture, than a certain place that appeared
to be empty. It was the small area atop the Ark of the Covenant.
No idol was there, nor was anything else there except the
intangible presence (Shekinah) of God. There within the
Holy of Holies was the most significant space in all Israel. What
appeared empty was in reality meaning-filled, for all other space
was determined by that place. Sacred space can be that specific,
that exact, that small and sheltered.
Or sacred space may extend outward
as far as the cosmic totality does. "The heavens are telling the
glory of God; and the firmament [dome] proclaims his handiwork"
(Psalm 19:1). To be sure, the whole creation is no substitute
for Scripture (Torah) as source of God's self-disclosure
(Psalm 19:7-11) to God's People. That is because there are "no
words" and "no voice" in whatever the heavens "tell" (Psalm 19:3).
But whether "the sacred" meets us out under the stars or on pages
of Scripture, in both cases we are led to pray: "Let the words
of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer (Psalm 19:14). That space is sacred
where heaven and earth meet, and where God and humanity commune.
Somewhere between the heavens and the Holy of Holies we all live.
Both at the outer edges of all existence and at the inmost heart
of our lives "the Holy" greets us, then moves with us through
all the places of our lives. Sacred space, once set apart, habitually
moves outward into all areas of life.
A lectionary text, for example, sees all the spaces occupied
by a marriage as also being filled by the Creator. Our Creator-builder
rejoices over husband and wife just as fully as they rejoice in
one another: "For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall
your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the
bride, so shall your God rejoice over you" (Isaiah 62:5). The
spaces of our physical and spiritual rejoicing are, either potentially
or actually, also the places where God rejoices.
In the Early Church what became
of that "empty" space above the Ark of the Covenant? So far as
the Early Church was concerned, that space became filled with
"the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation"
(Colossians 1:15). Intangible God, who cannot be grasped empirically,
is known by "looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our
faith" (Hebrews 12:2).
One of their great Christological hymns concluded: "For in him
all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him
God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on
earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross"
(Colossians 1: 19f). Ever since then for us Christians the space
filled by Jesus as Lord is the preeminent place where humanity
beholds who God is, and God beholds who humanity is.
The biblical traditions of sacred
space invite us to share the creative Spirit that was their source.
In order that we may see the cosmos as home of the Holy, we set
apart certain places and times as those where heaven met earth
most pregnantly for us, certain spaces and times as those where
God and we communed most unforgettably. By so doing we share in
the great rhythm of life that moves from within the Holy of Holies
out to the heavens and back, visiting all places of our life-journey
as it moves.