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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.

To Impressions of Sacred Space

John Gibbs, PhD, a retired theologian, attended Trinity Episcopal Church, Park Rapids, MN, when he wrote this article in 2002. He and we welcome your comments. Please address your comments to:

MEESC c/o C. Morello 4451 Lakeside Drive Eveleth, MN 55743-4400 USA

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