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Altar Guild talk on Sacred Space

Tags: garden tree lord

Creation of Paradise

To my mind, the best image to illustrate God’s creation is the reliquary. It is so beautiful, we might be forgiven for missing the point. It is only a beautiful display case for something more important. It is a means of setting apart what lies within for special veneration.

God created the heavens and the earth, the sun and moon and stars in their courses. He separated the dry lands from the seas, and brought forth life upon the earth. Genesis 2:8 – “And the Lord God planted a garden in the East, in Eden; and there he placed the man whom he had formed.”

This vast reliquary was a magnificent way to carve out a sacred place for the creature that bore most uniquely the image of the Creator.

The Garden of Eden by Thomas Cole 

God has created this sacred space as a dwelling-place for both the human and the divine. They walked together in fellowship in the garden in the cool of the day. The garden was a place of man’s priestly labor—Adam was to tend the garden (Gen 2:15), to cultivate the place where heaven and earth overlapped. Eden was sacred space. It is no wonder that temples throughout the ancient world were richly decorated with images of the garden. The very word “paradise” comes from the Persian term for a walled garden.

(I'm heavily indebted to Andrew Gould for his post about gardens in this section.)

The vision of paradise as an idyllic walled garden is exceedingly ancient and universal. For thousands of years, palaces have been built around courtyard gardens, and the ancient kings lived out their reigns in an artificial landscape of ideal beauty – an icon of the natural world transfigured into paradise.

There is a very old belief that any garden represents a restoration of Eden, and from the earliest times palace gardens have specifically imitated certain characteristics of Eden. The garden was always square. A fountain at the center poured forth water into four channels that radiated outward in the cardinal directions – an image of the four rivers of paradise referenced in Genesis 2:10-14. It is the preeminent image of human longing.
 The Bible begins in a garden and it ends with a garden. The New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 is the ideal joining of garden and city, where all things being restored, heaven and earth again overlap and God and man walk together in fellowship once more in the cool of the day. In the New Jerusalem, there is a walled city, a river of life issuing from the throne as it was in Eden. There are fruit bearing trees which bring life and healing to the nations. This is God’s image of how he intended life to be lived. The garden is more than a place; it is also a way of life and a state of the soul.

Is it any wonder that at the climax of the salvation story, we again find the setting of a garden. Jesus agonizes with his vocation in the Garden of Gethsemane, choosing to embrace the chalice of suffering. And at the end of his passion, he is laid to rest in a tomb in a garden. And the garden is where he first sets foot in his resurrected body.

The garden includes water and plants, but what makes it different from pure nature is the cultivation. Nature is harnessed and brought into order. This is reminiscent of the work of creation where things like earth and sea are cleanly divided. The wall is just as much an important feature as the vegetation. Although no wall is explicitly mentioned in Genesis 2, the very fact that an angel guards the way back into paradise implies the existence of a barrier and a gateway.

Ancient temples and palaces had their gardens, reminiscent of the ancient walled paradise where all was right with the world. It is no surprise then that churches would have their own ancient custom of the garden courtyard. The first house churches were in homes that had a central courtyard as one of the basic architectural features (think Abuello’s).
 In our diocese, St. Vincent’s cathedral has a central courtyard that has been increasingly cultivated in recent years. Holy Apostles in Fort Worth was built with this tradition of a courtyard in mind. The courtyard here at St. Alban’s is feeling more and more garden-like. It is an architectural feature that might often be missed or sometimes eliminated because of added expense, but one that I would argue holds an important place in the layout of the church building. We don’t see it often in this part of the world, but it is also a garden of rest for the departed.

To enter through the churchyard lychgate is to pass into a different world. To walk through the gardens to church amongst the resting places of the faithful departed is to begin the joyous ascent up the mountain to meet our Lord who sits enthroned in the New Jerusalem.
 In desert countries, the ancient church gardens have a marvelous separation from the surrounding landscape. A monastery in Egypt or Palestine is like an ark of paradise moored in the ocean of dry sand. In ancient times, Byzantine churches always had forecourts, and these contained fountains where the faithful washed themselves before entering. After a long journey through a landscape of desolation, we see palms rising above the high walls. Inside are flowers and birds and fragrant smells.

Even in countries with more verdant climates, the separation of the church gardens from the surroundings was considered very important. Whether by a high wall, or merely a fence with a gate, a church’s grounds were always set apart from the fallen world, and all within would radiate with the beauty of life.

Trees of the Patriarchs 

One of the main features of the garden the Bible mentions are the trees within it. Genesis 2:8-9, "And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he has formed. And out of the ground, the LORD God made to spring up every Tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil."

There is a tree of life in Eden (as there are such trees of life-giving fruit in the paradise of the New Jerusalem) and there is a tree of knowledge. Is it any wonder then that after man’s expulsion from paradise, the first place we find sacred space coming back into the scene is under the shade of a large tree? Of all places, the whisper of God would be best heard under a tree.

Pay attention to the first reading at Mass tomorrow morning. Abram is called by God in Genesis 12 to pick up roots in Haran and head out West to a land of promise. He went with his family, not knowing exactly where to go, but knowing that God would let him know when he got there. Where does Abram stop? Where does God speak to him in the promised land? 
 When Abram entered Canaan, his family stopped at Shechem. There, at a sacred terebinth tree—called the Oak of Moreh—we are told that Abram encounters God again. Now before, we are only told that the Lord “said” something to Abram. Now, Abram not only hears, but sees the God who called him to travel West. Genesis 12:7-8 – “Then the LORD appeared to Abram, and said, ‘To your descendants I will give this land.’ So he built there an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him. . . . and there he built an altar to the LORD and called on the Name of the LORD.’” This expression about “calling on the name” indicates worship.
 We know that the ancient Canaanites worshiped at such outdoor shrines. You can see how a large tree or a grove of trees in a dry, arid place would be a natural gathering spot. Much later, the prophet Hosea spoke of Israel “sacrificing under oak, poplar, and terebinth [trees] because their shade is good” (Hosea 4:13). The pagan people erected stone pillars in such places for sacrifice, and it seems that these were probably “general use” structures. They did not belong to one congregation or people; anyone could make use of them. Think of a public park with picnic tables and grills for cookouts. And yet, Abram does not use one of these Canaanite pillars. We are explicitly told that he built his own altar there at the Oak of Moreh to sacrifice to the Lord.
Then the story takes a detour in Genesis 12. They go down to Egypt to escape a famine. When it’s over, they journey back up to the Promised Land in Genesis 13 and make camp again in the same spot—between Bethel and Ai. Again, Abram “calls upon the name of the LORD” at the altar he had built there before. After he and Lot part ways, the Bibles says, “Abram moved his tent, and came and dwelt by the oaks of Mamre, which are at Hebron; and there he built an altar to the LORD” (Genesis 13:18).

The Lord appeared to Abram again at the oaks trees in the guise of three angels who signify the divine persons of the Trinity. The Lord came to investigate the outrages in Sodom and Gomorrah. The next time we find that tree mentioned is Genesis 18, where God visits he who is now called Abraham and confirms the promise with a prophecy of a son born to Sarah.

“And the LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth” (Genesis 18:1-2).

At first, Abram had built his own altars for sacrifice at these sacred groves of the native Canaanites. Later in Genesis 21:33, Abram (now Abraham) planted his own grove of trees at Beersheeba and used it as a place of sacrifice, to “call upon the Name of the Lord, the everlasting God.”

Need we even be reminded how the Lord first appeared to Moses? In a tree lit up with the fire of the divine Presence on a high mountain! When the people entered the Promised Land after the exodus, Joshua set up a great stone tablet of covenant laws under the oak tree of Shechem in the holy place of the Lord, where Abraham first encountered God in the Promised Land (Joshua 24:26).

In the time of the Judges, Deborah held court under “the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel” (Judges 4:5). The Israelites thought it fitting to bury the great Prophetess close the Lord’s dwelling, under the oak tree at Bethel. In the story of the call of Gideon in Judges 6, we read: “Now the angel of the LORD came and sat under the oak at Ophrah” and that Gideon brought his offering to the oak tree there.
Of course, as the nation takes shape, these sacred groves (which are often on hills or mountains) play less and less a part of the official religious life of the nation. Worship is consolidated in Jerusalem. Country folks still worship the God of Abraham at some of these high places, but the native pagans use them too and there is always the danger of syncretism in their religious faith. At the time of the reforms of Josiah, these high places are finally suppressed. One of the more curious details from this era comes from 2 Kings 23:7 in which all of the pagan elements are forcefully removed from the temple in Jerusalem including one operation “where the women wove hangings for the grove.” 
Graham Hancock, former reporter for the Economist gave this description of the sacred groves of the Qemant, a judaized animist group in Ethiopia: "Gnarled and massive, the acacia was so ancient that it would have been easy to believe it stood there for hundreds and perhaps even for thousands of years. . . . what made this site so different from any other place of worship I had come across in my travels—was the fact that every branch of the tree to a height of about six feet off the ground had been festooned with woven strips of vari-coloured cloth. Rustling in the wind, these waving pennants and ribbons seemed to whisper and murmur—almost as if they were seeking to impart a message" (Graham Hancock’s The Sign and the Seal, pg 247).

One thing that intrigued American poet Joyce Kilmer, is the tree’s constant and intimate communion with God. Before such a powerfully reverent creation, he can only sense his own inadequacy and weakness. We humans can produce wonderful, eloquent poetry, but what is a poem, which emerges from our frail quills; compared to the timeless wisdom embodied in a something like a tree, a simple yet infinitely complex creation wrought by the marvelous hand of God? So it is with the mystery of the Catholic Church—the marvelous Kingdom of God in paradise, in heaven, and on earth that started as the smallest of seeds in Jesus’ parable. It is a great fruitful tree which the Lord himself has created, planted, watered, and raised up to his glory. With that application in mind, let us consider again Kilmer’s words:

I think that I shall never see
A poem as lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing brest;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray,
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain,
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
Temple in Jerusalem

The God of Abraham "lived" on Mount Sinai. His presence was indicated with characteristic signs of theophany—smoke and fire, clouds and thunder and lightning. The mountain was set apart. No one but Moses was to set foot on the mountain.

The tablets of testimony written with the commandments of God (inscribed first with his own hand) were a portable sign of his presence. They were made of the material of the mountain and were inscribed with his will. An ark of acacia wood was made to transport them—again, materials from the mountain where the God of Abraham dwelt. When Moses put them in a box to take them to the Promised Land, it was almost as if they had put God himself in a box to take to the Promised Land. In reality, the tabernacle transported the tangible elements of that first encounter with God on the mountain.
God repeatedly “descended” to renew that encounter and make it sacred space once again. All the elements of theophany followed the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark—and the tabernacle which housed it—were God’s residence on the earth. It would make sense that God would give details instructions for the construction and operation of his residence. Again and again, Moses was told to make these things “according to the pattern shown to you on the mountain.” From the priceless gems, to the gold plating, to the fine cloth of scarlet and purple and linen vesture, the décor of the sanctuary reminds us that nothing but the finest that man has to offer is fitting for God’s dwelling place.

When the structure was complete, the Bible says: “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting, because the cloud abode upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would go onward; but if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not go onward till the day that it was taken up. For throughout all their journeys the cloud of the Lord was upon the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel” (Exodus 40:34-38).

God’s tangible presence dwelt above the “mercy seat”—the golden lid of the Ark of the Covenant—between two winged angels bowed down in worship. This was the most sacred space on earth. The closer to this sacred space you get, the more one leaves the realm of earth and enters the realm of heaven. We can see gradations of holiness with gradations of distinction reflected in the layout, building materials, and use of the tabernacle. The closer to God, the more set apart and precious the features become.
The less holy area of the outer courtyard was open to the laity and the metal associated with its construction was bronze. Moving further inward, only the priests and Levites (who were themselves consecrated for God) were admitted to the holy place in which the items were overlaid with gold (except for the menorah which was solid gold). Further inward, the contents of the holy of holies were either plated with gold on both the inside and outside (like the ark) or were made of solid gold (like the mercy seat). The Holy of holies was off limits to everyone by the high priest, who only entered once a year to offer blood on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). The sacredness of the entire precinct was evident from the proscription that the priests and Levites should camp in between the tabernacle and the tents of the other tribes during their sojourn in the wilderness.

When the Ark found a permanent home in Jerusalem, David said he would not rest until a fitting residence was made for the Lord and the Ark of his presence. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement in that the palace of the king and the palace of God (the temple) were essentially a part of the same complex. David was not to live to see it accomplished; that was left to his son, King Solomon. When the temple was finished and dedicated, we find the same description of the Lord descending and taking up residence within the Holy of holies was happened with the portable tabernacle.

God was with his people, coming with them from Egypt, through the desert, and taking up residence on a new mountain called Zion in the land of promise. The New Jerusalem is also said to be a place where God can dwell in the midst of his people. When John tells us he sees the Ark in heaven as it was in the old Jerusalem, but it has become a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars upon her head. She bears a Son who rules the nations with a rod of iron. Later, it is the Lamb who dwells in the midst of his people in the New Jerusalem.

It is no wonder then that John begins his gospel with a description of Jesus becoming (as it were) the new temple. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt (literally, “tabernacle”) among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14).

In his book Jesus of Nazareth (Infancy Narratives) Pope Benedict XVI wrote: “The man Jesus is the dwelling-place of the Word, the eternal divine Word, in this world. Jesus’ ‘flesh,’ his human existence, is the ‘dwelling’ or ‘tent’ of the Word: the reference to the sacred tent of Israel in the wilderness is unmistakable. Jesus is, so to speak, the tent of meeting—he is the reality for which the tent and the later Temple could only serve as signs.” As tragic an end as it was, it is fitting that the sacrificial system of the Old Covenant came to an end and the Temple of Herod was razed to the ground because Jesus is the eternal sacrifice, the New Covenant, and the living Temple of the Most High.

Facing East
The portable tabernacle in the wilderness and then the temple in Jerusalem were oriented the same as most all of the temples of the ancient world. The entrance pointed toward the east, the sunrise being a vivid symbol of the power of the deity coming into his temple. As beings of matter and spirit, it is important to recognize that we worship with both the soul and the body. Posture is a part of how we worship with the body.

Here is Father Beste at the altar of this church, leading his people in a solemn procession toward Christ in paradise, which is what the Eucharistic liturgy is all about. The common direction of clergy and people is a vivid reminder of their anticipation of, and movement toward, the paradise that awaits with the return of Christ in glory. We’ll ignore the fact that they’re technically headed in the wrong direction. It had long since become customary to consider the altar end of the church “liturgical East” no matter what the compass read. Was it a mistake to put the altar at the western end of this room? My only comment about that is to observe that if it had been put at the eastern end, the altar would not have been struck by lightning!

Do we find directionality in biblical prayer? Only in hints. In Isaiah 38, we read: “In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him, and said to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: Set your house in order; for you shall die, you shall not recover.’ Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall, and prayed to the Lord . . .” (Isaiah 38:1-2). The King was moved to prayer when faced with his own mortality. The royal palace was just west of the temple complex. Perhaps too sick to rise from his bed, we can safely assume he thought it at least proper and expedient that he should roll over and face toward the East (even if he was facing toward a blank wall) to address God in his house.

This gesture is a little passing reminder of how important directionality in worship was to people of days past—not just in ancient times, but approaching the modern era. Even after Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment which both served to detach spiritual matters from the physical realm, we still took the care to orient at least our churches if not ourselves when addressing God in prayer. Even the word “orientation” indicates a physical movement toward the oriens—Latin for “East.”

The one clear contradiction of this principal of praying toward the East in the Bible comes with the act of defiance that gets Daniel thrown into the lion’s den. In an effort to destroy Daniel, his enemies maneuvered to get King Darius to sign a decree stating that whoever prays to any god or man for thirty days, except to the king, shall be cast into the den of lions. The Bible says, “When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem; and he got down upon his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously” (Daniel 6:10).

Some scholars think that at least during the Exile, it was a common practice to face toward the temple mount for prayer, longing for the day when God’s dwelling place would be restored and his people would be brought home. Another explanation could be that by deliberately facing this way, it would be obvious that Daniel was engaging in an act of defiance toward the prohibition of worship by earthly power.

One thing we inherited from our Jewish roots of worship is this idea of direction in our posture of prayer. Like them, the earliest Christians also faced East in worship. This ancient Christian liturgical posture was traditionally interpreted as a bodily expression of the assembly’s eschatological expectation—awaiting Christ’s return in glory. Christ himself, the “Light of the world”, the “Dayspring from on High,” the “Bright Morning Star” is signified by the rising sun whose dawn marks the consummation of all things in a restored Paradise (whose type, Eden, lies “in the east“).

Perhaps nowhere is this more vividly realized architecturally than here—at Christo Rey Carmelite Monastery in San Francisco. The priest is leading the people in that liturgical procession toward paradise as all of the sudden Jesus bursts forth into this world from the Eastern horizon in his glorious return to earth. The anticipation of the parousia has been realized in the advent of his Real Presence.

St. John of Damascus explained: “When ascending into heaven, [Jesus] rose towards the East, and that is how the apostles adored him, and he will return just as they saw him ascend into heaven . . . Waiting for him, we adore him facing East. This is an unrecorded tradition passed down to us from the apostles” (On the Orthodox Faith 4:12). “Facing the Lord” in the liturgy often meant facing the tabernacle because it was there that the blessed Sacrament was reserved. Liturgically speaking, however, it is the eschatological orientation of the assembly toward the rendezvous with Christ in his new Advent which is paramount.

During the time of house churches, it was common to mark the Eastern wall of the home or courtyard with a cross, which would serve to indicate the direction of prayer during the time of worship for the community gathered at the Lord’s table. This was even before the period when the cross became a symbol commonly used in Christian circles.

The Church 
A church building is the intentional creation of sacred space, and since it is the culmination of thousands of years of tradition on worship, it brings to fulfillment those traditions in its design. In his book Church Building and Furnishing, liturgical scholar J. B. O’Connell notes repeatedly that the church building is the holiest of sanctuaries. “Apart from the sacramental presence of our Lord,” he wrote, “the church is a holy place, filled with the Divine Presence—more so than the Temple of old ever was. . . . A church by its very appearance should proclaim its character and the grandeur of its high and enduring purpose. It should not only be a church, but look like one . . . The church should have its own peculiar atmosphere, an atmosphere that is holy, hieratic, mystical, inspiring . . . that befits the perfect House of God” (pg 8-9).

Making Space Holy
It’s important to remember that you are the church, the mystical Body of Christ, you are sacred space. St Paul wrote in his First Letter to the Corinthians, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If any one destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are” (1 Cor 4:16-17). When our Lord comes to us, may he find in our hearts a mansion prepared for himself!

For our own spiritual well-being, we have to make sacred space in our own lives. We should put forth the time and effort to turn a part of our world into Paradise—that “walled garden” where order and beauty are cultivated, and where God and man spend time together, enjoying each other’s company. It should look like paradise, like a little corner of heaven. Perhaps the use of icons, or plants, or color, or fabric, or some such means of marking territory as holy and set apart from the rest of the world can help form a sacred space in your own life and foster communion with God.

We have so many exceptions to the rules, it’s sometimes difficult to remember what the rules are. According to the ancient practice and laws of the church, only the ordained clergy may enter the chancel and sanctuary. Like the priests and Levites encamped between the tabernacle and the people, they were gathered close to wait upon the Lord.

As a part of the altar guild, it is your service to stand in for the clergy and attend to the needs of the sanctuary. What can we do to mark off that sacred space? Entering the sanctuary, if it truly is the house of God, begs us to set apart ourselves as well. The rule of silence is paramount. As much as possible, the only words spoken should be words of scripture or words of prayer. A sacredness can be imparted through proper dress. Like the acolytes, perhaps only a special outfit is used when working in the sanctuary. Perhaps the ancient practice of the veil being worn in the house of God would be appropriate. The same attire and attitude can be a way of creating sacred space in our own lives and homes. It can be a way of building that wall for our Eden—setting it apart from the world.

Like Abraham finding rest in the Promised Land, we encounter God at a tree which serves as a place of sacrifice. Let us always have an image of the crucifix to attune us to prayer—perhaps on the east side of a room, marking the direction in which to cultivate our longing for Christ’s return.

A candle or two lit at the time of prayer is a way of invoking Christ’s presence, who once lit up the burning bush on Sinai and called it holy ground, who was named as the “Light of the world”, “the Dayspring”, and the “Bright Morning Star.” May God grant you to find sanctuary in your life this Lent.

This post first appeared on Timotheos Prologizes, please read the originial post: here

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Altar Guild talk on Sacred Space


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