Sacred space

St. Patrick’s Cathedral a Neo-Gothic-style Roman Catholic cathedral is the seat of the archbishop of the archdiocese of New York Ceiling perspective detail Manhattan NYC

Almost sixty years ago, the Romanian philosopher Mircea Elaide perceptively noted that certain physical spaces in many traditional religions are regarded as sacred.

However, modernity with its corrosive secularism has robbed us of this sacramental view of reality. The toxic influence of modernity has rendered material reality opaque, and has reduced it to a state of utter banality, incapable of either embodying or revealing the sacred.

The modern de-sacralisation of reality is seen acutely in its concept of physical space. Under the conditions of modernity, many evangelical churches have not only lost the sense of sacred space, but may even find such a notion troubling.

Christians must take the concept of sacred space very seriously, especially that space where the worship of God is conducted. This is not only because of the obvious fact that the Church must gather at a certain place for corporate worship.

Christians must also take the notion of sacred space seriously because of the fundamental doctrine of the Christian Faith, namely, the Incarnation. In the Incarnation, the second Person of the Triune God took up human flesh and entered into our time and space. He became a specific human being (Jesus of Nazareth) who lived in a specific time and place (first-century Palestine).

The Incarnation is important for our reflection on space because it shows that space can be the location of divine encounter and therefore the bearer of profound meaning. Space is important because throughout Scripture, God and humanity always meet at certain places, whether it be in the desolate wasteland or the splendour of the Temple in Jerusalem.

How space is organised for worship is equally important for the Christian Church.

The interior spaces of traditional Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches are usually heavily ornamented. Worshippers are surrounded with stained glass art, icons, statues, and wall frescoes. Together with the reading of the biblical texts and the sacred music of the Church, these visual images tell the great story of human salvation. Together, they provide the visual and the aural dimensions of Christian worship.

But the use of space is significant even for churches that are not very steeped in liturgical architecture. How the furniture is arranged in those churches point to their theological orientation and emphasis. For instance, the centrality of the pulpit in many Presbyterian churches signifies the importance of preaching in the Reformed tradition.

The significance of all this should never be underestimated because the relationship between the worshipper and the space or environment of worship is complex.

The place of worship provides the believer with what may be best described as an embodied history of devotion. The gathering space is important because it marks the temporal separation of the Christian community from the world outside. The church building is the place where the believer prays, confesses his sins, receives the bread and wine, performs the liturgy and sings his faith. Put differently, it is the place where the Christian worships the true God together with others in the community of faith.

In addition, the accumulative experience of using a particular church building for existentially significant rites of passage – baptisms, weddings, funeral wakes – is truly profound and enduring.

But what about churches that conduct their Sunday worship in commercial buildings of which they do not have exclusive use? To be sure, something important is lost in such arrangements.

However, Christians who have to use such premises can take comfort in the fact the early Church also had to meet at the homes of its members. The Church was not allowed to have properties of her own because Christianity was looked upon with suspicion (religio illicita).

But the Church never had real difficulties with this, thanks to her unique theology of space. For the Church understands that when she gathers at a certain place for worship – whether it is the cathedral or a cinema hall – that spatial context is no longer ordinary, profane space. It is transformed spiritually into sacred space, kingdom space, because of the holy presence of God.

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“Soundings” is a series of essays that, like the waves of a sonogram, explore issues in society, culture and the church in light of the Gospel and Christian understanding.

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Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.