I continue to reflect on General Kelly’s invocation of the word “sacred” in his presser Thursday past. They general opined that there seems to be nothing sacred left in America – a sentiment that I share. As I initially considered these ideas, I discovered that “sacred” has both secular and religious implications. I then discussed how it is unremarkable that there is no secular sacredness anymore given how little sense of sacredness there seems to be in much of American Christian expression. My continued reflection on the idea has focused on the question of why has the American church seemingly abandoned sacredness.
In that initial post I hinted at reasons of inclusivity and accessibility, but as I consider those ideas I see something deeper at play. It has been my privilege to tour many sacred places in this world. I was with a bunch of lawyers when I visited the courtroom in Nuremberg where the Nazi war trials occurred. One of those lawyers referred to that place as sacred. I have been to some of the great churches and holy sites of the world – Holy Seplechure – St. Peter’s Basilica – Compostela de Santiago – and the place where I most sensed its sacredness, the Garden of Gethsemane. In addition to my Gethsemane story, two others come to mind.
One was my visit to the Monastery of the Caves in the then Soviet Union. In that place I was severely chastised by a woman for photographing the icons. Yes this was an ancient, and some would argue superstitious, expression of faith but in it I knew that Christianity would outlast communism. The Soviet Union in fact fell only months later. The other was a visit to Westminster Abbey in London a few years ago. Massively invaded by tourists it remains a working church and the priests offer hourly prayer. My wife and I paused our viewing of the numerous historic graves in that place to participate in the prayer – most of the tourists did not. The observation I draw from these two visits is that a place or thing may be designated as sacred, but it is our behavior that truly makes it so. A place that the Soviets dearly wanted to make a museum remained sacred through the faith and practice of an old Ukrainian woman. A place that worked very hard to be sacred was in the practice of the many tourists about most profane. Sacredness is not about places or things – it is about us.
So what is it about us that has driven us to abandon sacredness?
The answer to that question is simply really – discovering sacredness is hard work. When Paul wrote the the church at Phillipi he urged them to, “…work out your salvation with fear and trembling;….” This admonition comes at the end of the great coda passage in which believers are encouraged to, “Do nothing from [selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus,….” That is a very tall order, particularly in our self-focused world. It would seem that “working out our salvation” involves not only fear and trembling, but also counting others as more important than ourselves. In other words, part of becoming sacred is about setting aside our own needs and desires in favor of someone else’s. I think that might go a long way towards explaining why we have abandoned sacredness.
The process of “working our our salvation” is often referred to in church-speak as sanctification – defined in that link like this:
The generic meaning of sanctification is “the state of proper functioning.” To sanctify someone or something is to set that person or thing apart for the use intended by its designer. A pen is “sanctified” when used to write. Eyeglasses are “sanctified” when used to improve sight. In the theological sense, things are sanctified when they are used for the purpose God intends. A human being is sanctified, therefore, when he or she lives according to God’s design and purpose.
I find it interesting that the words “sacred,” sanctification” and “sacrifice” have common linguistic roots in Latin. They are related one to the other. That being the case, living “according to God’s design and purpose” is not something that would be terribly popular today. To do so calls upon us to sacrifice our own wants and desires in favor of the other, or simply in favor of God’s stated design. When our popular culture defines “love” as never challenging someone to be other than what they think they want to be, it is easy to see why sacredness has fallen out of favor.
Yet I am drawn back to the kerfuffle that surrounds General Kelly’s comments that brought the idea of the sacred back into the public eye. The entire thing is an example of what happens when we abandon sacredness – it is so ugly. The entire thing is swallowed in narrow self-interest, name calling and insult. When we do not call ourselves to sacredness, when we do not work to hold others as more important than ourselves, the ugliness is all we have left.
I don’t think any of us really wants to live in an ugly world. All we have to is get to work.