Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ – Exodus 3:3-5
This past spring, I had the opportunity to attend a particular interfaith gathering in the western suburbs of Chicago. A meeting of the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church and the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, we shared a meal, listened to talks both from Christian and Muslim clergy, and then had a chance to sit together and talk, both about what unites us and what separates us. It was a blessed time.
The event was held on a Friday, the Muslim holy day, and the time for evening prayers arrived. The men rose as one and left the room for the narthex to pray. Later in the evening, when one of the Imam’s spoke, he noted that this United Methodist Church, a Christian space dedicated to our particular worship of our Triune God, would, on the Day of Judgment, be remembered by Allah as holy ground, because it was a place where the people gathered to pray to Allah. I was so moved by that declaration. This rather bland, typical white suburban mainline Protestant church building had become, through the expedient of opening its space to use to persons of other faiths, something more than what it had been before. Certainly holy ground for us Christians, it had become a space Muslims would accept as Holy because Allah had welcomed the prayers of the people from within its walls. While recognizing the holiness of one another’s spaces, this was now a place declared holy by more than one faith. Not every such space has such an honor.
A pastor in our conference preaches in bare feet, out of reverence for the chancel being Holy Ground. When I heard this, my already enormous respect grew even greater. In a time when the notion of “holiness” has become a surd, an empty vessel rarely filled with much of anything, it is refreshing to know there are still some who recognize something portentous exists within the time and space of Christian worship .
Earlier this summer, a FB friend of mine went on vacation across Italy. Among the many beautiful photos posted were those of the grand cathedrals. I confessed that I could live in a cathedral, something I said two years ago while visiting the National Cathedral in Washington. My FB friend agreed with the sentiment. I suspect our reasons for taking up residence in such a structure might be different. For me, such a space removes us from the world around us. Not completely, of course, because we are always in the world while also active participants and residents of the Kingdom. The space enclosed by a cathedral, however, speaks to the body and Spirit of an existence that is available now, yet also to be more fully when the New Creation is fully consummated. The acoustics, the light filtered through stained glass, the images and many altars available for prayers, many of those spaces set aside for distinct petitions, the grand altar toward which we face, offering our prayers, and from which we receive the gift of the Eucharist is a physical representation of that space the prophet Isaiah saw as a throne room, and the prophet St. John the Divine saw as the point from which flow the rivers of life, with thrones both for God and the Lamb.
Even other spaces within a cathedral can speak, through their design and appearance, of that True Holy Ground toward which all others point.
In one of the towers of the National Cathedral is an observation space from which most of the city is visible (the Cathedral is built upon a hill that is, I believe, the highest point within the District). Walking around the escarpment, as seen in this photo, one has a sense of a passageway with a goal; this space is not just mundane walking areas. It is, in fact a way to move through particular spaces always remembering that we are in a ground hallowed by the presence of God. That at the end of these walkways is always a window, always light, emphasizes that we are moving through a place where the Light of the World has come to rest, has claimed, and from which we carry that light.
I think that sense of holiness about cathedrals is learned. I’m quite sure people no longer wedded to Christianity, or of other faiths recognize the beauty and grandeur of cathedrals without getting caught up in the spiritual message such spaces contain. There’s certainly nothing wrong with reveling in the aesthetic joy of something so powerful. That cathedrals have this other dimension, an acknowledgement of and dedication to the specific immanence and transcendence of Christian faith is a declaration of faith.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the magnificence of a cathedral we can forget our local churches, too, are as holy, as dedicated to that same immanent/transcendent declaration of the Kingdom of God. Whether some small country church an older central city church or perhaps something that looks more like a gymnasium or concert hall, our church buildings are no less grand than Notre Dame, Hagia Sophia, or the Dome of the Rock. We are on holy ground, a space and place where God is, and to which we are called to gather to worship. From here, we are sent forth to the world to take some of that holiness outside the walls, to make just a bit more of our world holy ground, places blessed by the Divine presence.
The Kingdom of God is so much more than justice, righteousness, peace, and holy hospitality. It is also spaces and places, ground and building, where our God is. Just as Allah will remember on the Day of Judgment that humble space in suburbia as holy, so, too, will our God never again leave a space blessed by the Divine Presence through the work and worship of Christians. The Kingdom comes not just within the lives of Christians dedicated to the service to the world; it also comes across land and water, in window and across threshold where the Spirit has moved and made holy.