Rediscovering the truly sacred spaces in the great Christian act of praise and thanksgiving
By Thomas O'Loughlin
In the world's wealthier countries the virus is retreating before the vaccines.
In some places, parish life and celebrations in church buildings are returning to a kind of normality. Many Catholics, especially presbyters, are pleased: the familiar is returning.
But before we settle back into our familiar ways, we should take stock. A new normal might be much more in keeping with the gospel than the old and familiar.
Sacred / Profane
Most religions make a very clear distinction – running right through the cosmos – between the holy and the plain, between the sacred and the profane, and between religion and mundane, the ordinary.
One is wonderful, the other is "just there", the everyday that is just "thrown there".
The religious has a character of permanence and solemnity, the world about us is tatty even if it is where we work and live.
This distinction is not the same as a moral dualism, a world of good and evil at war, such as Manichees lived within and which has infiltrated Christianity from time to time.
It is more akin to the way we treat clothes: there is ordinary everyday working clothes that might be smart and practical, and then there are our special clothes – our glad rags, "best suit", or formal wear (which you hope you can still fit into) - that we get out for special occasions.
The ancient religions of Greece and Rome – focused on the city – are perhaps the best expressions of this distinction.
For them, the temples represented the holy and the temple precincts were marked off from the ordinary. With them was the area where the priests functioned: they worked inside the holy area on behalf of "the great unwashed".
The gods were to be appeased, their help and protection sought: their benign smile was needed for the happiness of the city. This divine benefit required the service of the people in terms of sacrifices.
A Hellenistic altar found during the excavations at Banias [Caesarea Philippi]
- this is from a wealthy household and has a basin to hold libations offered to the gods
This was the "deal" between the city and the gods; with the various priesthoods as intermediaries.
This relationship was summed up in three words: do ut des ("I give to you in order that you give to me") and the priests (there are various words in Latin such as sacerdotes and pontifices) acted as "go-betweens".
Into this world came Christianity with a very different vision – a vision far more radical than most of the converts to Christianity at the time seem to have realized.
The God of all
For Christians the whole of the cosmos – every last bit of it from the sun, moon and stars to the stones one stubs one's toe on – was the handiwork of God.
God had created it in freedom and God was infinitely more than the creation.
The shock of this was captured in the mid-second century by Hermes in a little amusing tag that would pull up any pagan short: the Christians believed that "God created everything out of nothing" (creatio ex nihilo).
All depends on God's will and love. All is ordinary in comparison with God. Only God is Holy. Put another way, the whole creation is a sacred space because it is God's handiwork.
… and climate change?
That is why, for example, when Pope Francis talks about the ecological crisis he is engaging in a religious topic.
This may cause great annoyance of the climate change deniers who do not see this as any of his business.
But it his business, and the business of everyone (Jew, Christian and Muslim) who proclaims that God is not one more being in the universe, but the ineffable cause of all being.
… and liturgy?
This also means that wherever I am I can be as close to God as anywhere else. The creation is our temple.
This was expressed by John thus:
Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. … But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth (Jn 4, 21-4).
Wherever a human being is, there God is present and there that person can be present to God.
The divine love extends to each person, so each person is able, and has the dignity, to stand there in God's presence and offer worship.
Hence, we stand when, through Jesus the Christ, we all intercede for the world in the Prayer of the Faithful.
We can all, not just a specially selected few, enter the divine presence. This is what saying "we are a priestly people" means.
It is also the reason why the early Christians never referred to their leaders as sacerdotes (priests) but as presbuteroi (elders).
By the time Christians started to use the word sacerdotes for presiders at the Eucharist, they were already thinking in the pagan way of a "chosen someone" who worked on their behalf in the "sacred area".
Christians had by then forgotten the cry of Irenaeus: "Christian be aware of your dignity" and that there is only one chosen one, one priest in the New Law: Jesus.
He is the "great high priest over the house of God" (Heb 10:21), and we all "are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people" (1 Pet 2:9) who pray through him.
A community's table in a traditional formal arrangement
- just because something does not mean it is ideal.
And if all the creation comes from God, and all depends on him, then trading with God is blasphemous, and the attitude of love to love is that of gratefulness.
We are to be a grateful people. We are to recall what God has done for us in the creation and in the Christ and return thanks through our High priest. Hence the name of our great assembly is "the thanksgiving", the Eucharist.
That we gave it another name by accident, "the Mass", is a warning of just how easily we made it into one more act of service on the pagan model.
Sadly, many still do not even appreciate (as when a parish priest uses it on a notice board) how it is a symptom of forgetfulness!
'Neither sacred gardens nor altars'
At the end of the second century an apologist for Christianity, Menucius Felix, who was all too aware of the difference between the pagan and Christian visions, made this his great cry.
The great Christian act of praise and thanks took place at a table: it was a shared meal of the community at which the Christ is among us.
We do not need to go to a special place; our thanksgiving takes place in the ordinary world of tables and chairs in our everyday life. It is at every meal that we are called to make Eucharist happen.
Then having been thankful alone or in families, we can appreciate our gathering as a larger family, sisters and brothers in the Lord, who celebrate the great meal of thankfulness.
Even the plainest, most utilitarian table can become a Christian sacred space if the baptized gather around it,
and in union with the Christ, offer than to our heavenly Father.
We have just come through a weird fifteen months: no real gathering to stand around the Lord's table and to share his loaf and his cup with our sisters and brothers.
But if we have not been eucharistic at our own table and have not seen thanksgiving as a fundamental feature of our lives – thankful for our lives, our health, our loved ones, our neighbors, all who care for the sick, those who make life livable – then we just might miss the fundamental Christian vision.
God is here, the risen one is among us in our lives. And it is from out of the ordinariness of our lives that through Jesus, with Jesus and in Jesus that we must act eucharistically.
The Christian "new normal" is that we can engage in the fundamental expression of our attitude to God – thankfulness – at our shared tables.
Thomas O'Loughlin is a presbyter of the Catholic Diocese of Arundel and Brighton and professor of historical theology at the University of Nottingham (UK). His latest book is Eating Together, Becoming One: Taking Up Pope Francis's Call to Theologians (Liturgical Press, 2019).
Read more articles by Thomas O'Loughlin in La Croix International