The concept of the sacred is fuzzy in this profane world in which we live. Most people think of priests in robes intoning lengthy Latin phrases or perhaps a cathedral comes to mind. The sacred demands a solemn mindset, a long face, and soft voices. None of this is true, of course, being just an imitation of the sacred. The priests and the massive stone churches with their intricate stained glass windows may or may not participate in the sacred.
The definition of sacred is ‘connected to God’. Rituals seem connected to God, but often, they are meaningless repetitions of something that mentions God at regular intervals. But the Christian, connected by heart, mind, and spirit to God, is sacred and God calls us to disperse that sanctity throughout the world. Our participation is what makes a ritual sacred. Not the ritual itself.
I find that many Christians misunderstand the verse in James which says that true religion is the care of the widow and orphan as well as keeping oneself unstained by the world. He speaks of both the sacred and the profane here. Let us understand ‘profane’ as treating that which is sacred with irreverence. Since God greatly concerns Himself with the care of the widow and orphan, I understand that our care of them is a sacred duty. But the profane nature of the world presents a dilemma. We live in the world and often, as Christians, having tasted a little of the holiness of God, we fear being polluted.
Sex and violence permeate our culture and outrage is now entertainment. But to partake in these is a choice of the will and many of us willingly pollute our minds with the profane. But I find that some Christians turn the idea of the sacred into legalism and the fear of pollution into superstition. I have one Christian friend who fears what I have come to call spiritually transmitted diseases. If she goes into a place that gives her bad vibes, she hastens out to avoid any contact with evil. She is afraid of evil spirits infecting her the way many fear catching the flu.
The world does not pollute us through propinquity. We live with evil all around us. If nearness was all that was required, the fight would be lost before it began. However, we, as keepers of the light and dispersers of the gifts and fruit of the Holy Spirit, are the agents of change in a profane world. In the Old Testament, one became defiled by any variety of means. I remember an elevator ride in Jerusalem at a hotel. The two orthodox Jews in the small space with me turned their backs on me and faced the corners. If I was menstruating and they accidentally touched me, they would be unclean. Obviously, they were pretty sure that I was unclean. And for a moment, I felt it until I remembered that I am made clean by the Spirit in me.
In the New Testament, Jesus goes around touching all the unclean people and making them new. Lepers, dead people, and women who bled, all were transformed and invited into the sacred. I think of the sacred when I read the story of the wedding feast. None of the good people of the day would join in. Instead, the ragamuffins and disenfranchised chose to come to the table. The unwashed crowds became clean. The profane is made sacred. Interesting that those who saw themselves as the most dedicated participants in the sacred, the Pharisees, Jesus saw as white-washed shrouds. Nothing is more profane than death. Just the thought of the decay of the grave fills us with horror. Adam and Eve’s sinned in that they chose death over life. Notice they never partook of the Tree of Life, though nothing prevented them before the fall.
Our New Role
In the New Testament, we are salt and light. We go into unclean places and make them clean, just like Jesus. We lay hands on people and God in us sanctifies them. Even our unbelieving families are sanctified through us. They are connected to God through us and our prayers.
I do not believe that things are in and of themselves particularly sacred. Even that which we consecrate to God is holy only because of our intentions. Holy relics and icons do not possess any powers in themselves. Communion and baptism, when we participate in them with hearts submitted to God, become vessels of the sacred. By this I mean that while the elements of bread, wine, and water are not holy or even spiritual in and of themselves, they can connect us to God, making the rites sacred through our wholehearted participation in them.
The ancient pagans had their sacred amulets and representations of their gods. But those were just an imitation of the sacred, being profane and rebellious. We have our gods and pet habits too. Perhaps the best way to tell if we are keeping ourselves unpolluted by the profane is by holding up each aspect of our lives and asking if it connects or disconnects us from God.
Sorting it Out
Our words, if life and death are in the tongue, are either holy or profane. In fact, the word, profanity, comes from the idea of disrespecting what is sacred. Many Christians these days speak vulgar words. The F word is rapidly losing its reputation as a bad word in our culture. I see it as disrespecting sexuality, an area that God has declared sacred within marriage. I suppose that many feel that as long as they avoid taking Jesus’ name in vain, they avoid sinning with their tongues. However, if one wouldn’t say it in the presence of a holy and living God, one should perhaps keep one’s mouth closed. I say this humbly, knowing that out of my own mouth come words that do not edify.
Music has the potential to be sacred or profane. I used to tell my students that all art makes a case for or against God. If the painting, movie, book, or dance leads one to what is good, pure, and noble, then it holds within it at least the possibility of the sacred. And yet, so much art does the opposite. I am not making an argument for only ‘pretty’ art. I am making the argument that art tells the truth or a lie as well as often revealing the heart of the artist.
My main point is that almost anything can fall into either category. If all you do is as unto the Lord, then the possibility of the holy entering into even menial chores becomes possible. Living in the presence of God within you means that you bring the holy into every area of your life and then into the lives of others. To live in reverence does not mean to wall yourself up within an ivory tower. It means that you see every human, no matter how fallen, as potentially sacred and everything you touch as possibly consecrated through Christ in you.
Not sure? Enter into the throne room of your Heavenly Father (hint: it’s inside of you) and present every action, every habit, every relationship before Him. You will know right quick if it is profane or if it is consecrated, as you already are, to the Lord.