Year B, Proper 28
It seems there was a lovely young woman named Rose who enjoyed sitting in the garden every evening at twilight. One evening she heard the song of a nightingale ring out through the trees. Rose was enthralled! So enthralled that without thinking she answered back with her own song for she too was a gifted singer. The nightingale returned her favor. Back and forth they sang to one another for over an hour in antiphonal duet. As it grew dark Rose let the nightingale sing the last soaring notes. In the silence the bird flew from its perch in a nearby fruit tree to the young woman’s open hand. They gazed at one another and Rose said softly, “Your singing is beyond compare. Are you an angel disguised in those plain, soft, brown feathers?” With that the nightingale shook himself. He vanished. And Rose was left holding a silent ball of light. [i]
“I bless the LORD who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. I keep the LORD always before me; …Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure.” Psalm 16: 7-9.
Rose found sacred space in the garden singing with one of God’s creatures, the nightingale. Psalm 16 epitomizes the experience of sacred space. Sacred space can be a tangible place of worship and contemplation or an internal place that becomes a temple of the heart where relationship with the Holy is found, experienced and fully trusted. Images of sacred space run throughout our texts this week in a variety of places – the ancient shrine of Shiloh, the first and second temples in Jerusalem and finally in the human and mystical presence of Christ and the in hearts of those who trust. In these sacred spaces fervent prayers are lifted up and psalms sung, barrenness is transformed into fertileness, visions of hope are restored to the faithful, forgiveness is given and received. The flip side of the images of sacred space is found in images of destruction of relationship with the Holy that also run through our texts.
In 1 Samuel the ancient shrine at Shiloh is central to the story of Samuel, the prophet/judge who links the time of judges to the time of Israel’s kings. Shiloh is where Joshua first set up the Tent of Meeting after entering the Promised Land with the wandering Israelites. For just under 400 years during the time of the judges it housed the Ark of the Covenant and was the central place of Hebrew worship. Samuel’s parents, Hannah and Elkanah, make regular pilgrimage for worship to Shiloh where the Ark of the Covenant is kept to pray for the son, Samuel, who is eventually conceived, and dedicated to the service of the Lord even before birth.
Samuel is the one chosen by God to anoint Israel’s first kings, Saul and David. It is David who envisioned the temple at Jerusalem as a new center for worship and home for the Ark of Covenant. His son, Solomon, implemented, expanded and built the vision in the 10th century before Christ. A new sacred space is created for the Jewish people that is the cultic center of worship until its destruction in 586 BCE by the Babylonian empire. The temple’s 23-year reconstruction began in 538 BCE under Cyrus the Great and with several reconstruction efforts the temple stood until 70 CE.
Our visionary passage from Daniel is set against the backdrop of the violation of the temple with the worship of the Greek god, Zeus. According to scholar, Daniel J. Harrington, “the visions of chapters 7–12 reflect the crisis which took place in Judea in 167–164 BCE when Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Greek king of the Seleucid Empire, threatened to destroy traditional Jewish worship in Jerusalem. [22 ”][ii] Daniel brings a vision of hope. God will be with God’s people despite and beyond the devastation of traditional sacred spaces. God knows those who faithfully trust in God and will keep them. They will shine like “the brightness of the sky” (Daniel 12:3).
In the gospel of Mark, written after the temple’s second destruction in 70 CE, Jesus gives an apocalyptic prophecy to his disciples, which includes the temple’s demise. Yet it also concludes with the hope of something new being born in the Kingdom of God. After its first century destruction the temple in Jerusalem was never rebuilt. But it’s western wall known now as the Wailing Wall is still sacred space to people from all over the world. Stories of the encounter of the God’s presence at this ruined wall still inspire people in their search for sacred space within their own lives.
Most likely written in 63-64 CE before the destruction of the Jerusalem temple the writer of Hebrews uses the imagery of the temple to address the doctrine of the person of Christ and to encourage Jewish Christians in Jerusalem who were undergoing persecution. In an intricate and extended allegory using temple imagery, Christ replaces Jewish temple rituals. The believer’s faith in Christ becomes the sacred space to encounter God through the confession of hope in Christ.
What does all this history reveal to us about sacred space and its importance in our faith? What are stories that can invoke sacred space to enhance the sacred space of our worship and education? In sacred space people encounter divine presence. Imagination and hope are recovered. Hearts, souls, bodies and minds are invited into healing and wholeness.
One of my favorite stories comes to me frequently when I pray. It is from the book, Doorways to the Soul; 52 Wisdom Tales from Around the World by Elisa Davy Pearmain. It is a personal story from contemporary Rabbi Abraham Twerski. You can find it in Pearmain’s book under the title, “The Blind Man Praying at the Wall”. And at www.abrahamtwerski.com.
“I was at the kotel (Western Wall), reciting Tehillim (Psalms), when I saw a blind man being led to the kotel. He ran his fingers over the historic stones, gently kissed the wall, then launched into a conversation with Hashem. He spoke rapidly and I could not make out every word, but abruptly he paused and said, “Oh! I told You that yesterday,” and resumed his conversation. I was electrified! Here was a person who genuinely felt he was relating to Hashem. In whatever way one relates to Hashem, one bonds with Him and one grows spiritually.”[iii]
Ask yourself where you find sacred space? In a garden like Rose? On pilgrimage to holy places like the Wailing Wall? In the silence of your faith community’s worship space? In communal singing? Sacred space happens wherever we give ourselves wholeheartedly in trust to God. It may not come dramatically or in mystical experience, but with subtle movements in the heart and mind. It may come in the midst of times of crisis and also in times of everyday service. It may come with quiet or boisterous praise. What are your stories of experiencing sacred space?
Blessings on your story journey,
©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2015. All rights reserved.
[i] Retelling of the story “Duet” by Barbara Berger, Animalia, (Berkeley, CA: Celestial Arts, 1982). I could not find the origin of this tale in folklore. I wonder if Berger was influenced by the Hans Christian Anderson tale, “The Emperor and the Nightingale” or Oscar Wilde’s short story, “The Nightingale and the Rose.”
[iii] http://www.abrahamtwerski.com/index.php/writings/essays/58-hashkafah-issues/116-why-is-prayer-a-mitzvah “Hashem” in Hebrew literally means, “The Name” and in Rabbinis Judaism it is the manner in which God is addressed.