What is the “sacred”? Too often, we see it as the opposite of the mundane or common. This view is incorrect and can damage our understanding of the Faith.
A setting apart
In a previous essay for WPI, I explained that Christ’s coming tore the veil that kept God at a distance from human beings. The sacred, seen as the realm of God apart from fallen humanity, no longer exists for us.
There is another sense, however, in which the sacred is still meaningful for us. The origins of the word itself indicate a “setting apart,” and as Catholics we consecrate or “set apart” many things: the ordained priest, the church building, special holy days, the bread and wine at the Offertory.
How should we view this setting apart or separation? Certainly not as the opposite of the common realities of daily life. Rather, the sacred represents the ideal, the aspiration, the standard for the mundane and common. Much as a good novel can give a greater understanding of everyday life, sacred things are set apart to remind us that all things are sacred, that the earth is the Lord’s, and that “in him we live and move and have our being.” As Pope Francis writes in Laudato Si’:
Contemplation of creation allows us to discover in each thing a teaching which God wishes to hand on to us, since “for the believer, to contemplate creation is to hear a message, to listen to a paradoxical and silent voice.” We can say that “alongside revelation properly so-called, contained in sacred Scripture, there is a divine manifestation in the blaze of the sun and the fall of night.” Paying attention to this manifestation, we learn to see ourselves in relation to all other creatures: “I express myself in expressing the world; in my effort to decipher the sacredness of the world, I explore my own.” (85)
This was true of the sacred even under the Old Covenant, as Thomas Howard explains in Splendor in the Ordinary:
The area around where the tent stood was fenced off . . . But did this fencing off leave everything else out? Did it imply that here alone in Israel could we find anything real and worthy?
On the contrary: the Tabernacle was set in the middle of the camp of Israel, and the whole notion was that there would be a ceaseless coming and going in and out of that holy place. It was not that the ordinary life of Israel—their cooking and washing and haggling and packing and unpacking—was peripheral and that they only got down to business when they brought their lambs and bullocks to the priests. It was the other way around: their bringing of their sacrifices and offerings was the token of the mystery that was at work through the whole fabric of their life; namely, that everything belonged to God and was therefore hallowed. The lamb brought to the door of the tent was precisely a token. In him there was gathered up and born all the rest of their flocks, and all of their possessions, and their very lives. In other words, the presence of the fenced-off place in the middle of the camp proclaimed what was true all through that camp and to its outermost perimeter: everything was “holiness unto the Lord.” (p. 16)
What was true for the people of Israel is even more true for the Christian, since in Christ we’ve been taken through the veil into the holy of holies itself. We can see this played out in many aspects of Catholic spirituality.
The Blessed Sacrament
At Mass, the bread and wine are consecrated, set apart, and become the Body and Blood of Christ. In a certain sense, as William T. Cavanaugh explains in his wonderful book Being Consumed, the reception of the Eucharist consumes us and integrates us into the body of Christ. Communion makes every Christian as sacred as the consecrated Host. It isn’t that we should treat the Host with less respect, but rather that we should respect others more.
For the Christian, even the non-Christian is sacred, because through the Incarnation, Christ is now the brother of us all. Pope Francis, in his sermon for the canonization of Mother Teresa, gives a striking explanation of this Christian attitude toward our neighbor:
Their message found a wonderful synthesis in the words “I want mercy, not sacrifice.” God is pleased by every act of mercy, because in the brother or sister that we assist, we recognize the face of God which no one can see (cf. Jn 1:18). Each time we bend down to the needs of our brothers and sisters, we give Jesus something to eat and drink; we clothe, we help, and we visit the Son of God (cf. Mt 25:40). In a word, we touch the flesh of Christ.
Like the Blessed Sacrament, the other instances of the sacred in Catholicism that were mentioned above all serve as reminders of the fundamentally sacred nature of reality. The ordained priesthood should not make the priesthood of all the faithful seem inferior by comparison. Rather, the ordained priest should remind us of our universal dignity. The church building should remind us that our homes are “domestic churches”. Sundays help to refocus our attention on God and neighbor, a focus we should carry with us throughout the week.
A Holy Race, a Chosen People
We don’t have the option to fall back to the level of the secular and common. The temptation is to wall off the sacred, under the pretense of greater reverence, so that we can relax when we’re away from it. There is no “away” for the Christian, however. We live in the presence of God as under the glare of the noonday sun. There can be no nightfall, no forgetting of our dignity, for those who have been redeemed by the blood of God. For us, the only alternative to the sacred is sacrilege, because we are a sacred priesthood in God’s temple.
Image: Adobe Stock. By wjarek.