Circular Letter: Advent 2005

The Sense of the Sacred:
Formation in the Sense of the Sacred

“Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Ex 3:5). These words addressed to Moses as he approached the burning bush evince not merely the fact that God Himself is all holy, but even the ground around the area where the Angel of Lord appears is made sacred and worthy of particular respect. This warning is itself a lesson, calling for an external sign of reverence in the presence of the manifestation of God even when realized through the mediation of an angel (cf. Ex 3:2; Acts 7:30-32). Similarly, when Jacob

…dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of which reached to heaven and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it, and the LORD stood beside him and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring.” …He afterwards awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place—and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Gen 28:12ff.)

Once more the sense of fear and reverence is inspired by the presence of God and His holy messengers in a specific place.

These passages convey the “sense of the sacred”, that is, the profound impression which man experiences when he encounters the tremendous and awe-inspiring mystery of God’s transcendence, the overwhelming holiness of His Being. Something of this sense is also felt toward His faithful angels due to their perfect participation in the divine nature (cf. 2 Pet 1:4) through grace and glory.

This sense, expressed on the part of man by feelings of reverent fear and astonishment is often communicated to man by means of the holy angels who serve as God’s messengers. In the Old Testament one finds many similar texts which attest to the fact that this is the reaction commonly evoked by the intensity of the fear-inspiring presence of God and His angels. These episodes make up an important part of the fundamental pedagogy of God in the formation of His chosen people. This is seen in a key event in the formation of the People of God: the establishment of the covenant on Mount Sinai. When God appeared to Moses, accompanied by thunder and lightning, and the loud blast of the trumpet, the people were so awe-struck that they said to Moses: “‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.’ And Moses replied: ‘Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of Him upon you so that you do not sin’” (Ex 20:19-20).

Novelty of the New Covenant

With the Incarnation of the Son of God, however, God now takes the initiative to unite Himself intimately and permanently with man. Previously God was distant, now He becomes familiar. This new familiarity with God provides a particularly poignant meditation in this season of Advent and Christmas: God Himself chose to assume the lowly form of a helpless Child, to become a man among men. “GOD is with us!” How could man not be amazed at the very thought? Can it be that with the birth of the God-man, the divine pedagogy in the formation of man’s dispositions before the presence of God was to undergo a change of direction?
In the Old Testament man hardly dared to enter into the presence of even the messenger of God. Yet now with the birth of Christ, in this humble state, God provided Himself with no better place to rest than in a poor manger, in a dingy stable for cattle. This unassuming poverty and simplicity were to mark Jesus’ entire existence on earth up until and including His allowing Himself to be handed over to suffering and death. Even after the utter humiliation of His Passion, the Incarnate Son of God remains among us in the even lowlier form of Bread in the Blessed Sacrament. How can we interpret this divine humility except as a revelation of God’s desire to make Himself ever more accessible to all men?

At the same time, however, reflecting upon this divine Self-effacement, one may ask whether God expects the same sense of awe and reverence in His presence? In view of the radical change that has occurred in the relationship of man to God consequent upon the Incarnation, should there be a change in man’s demeanor in the presence of God? Is there to be any continuity between the formation given by the angels throughout the Old Testament and that which is given in the New, or are we to leave behind the Old for the sake of something altogether different?

To answer this question, it is helpful to recall a distinction mentioned by St. Paul when he writes:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, Who, though He was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be held on to, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a Cross. Therefore, God also highly exalted Him and gave Him the Name that is above every Name, so that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:5-11)

St. Paul makes clear that Jesus Christ, being “in the form of God”, deserved divine honor. In fact this honor was due Him, not only as the Son of God, but also in the human nature which He united to Himself. Yet He freely chose to renounce the external manifestation of His glory for the sake of our Redemption. But then, through the Paschal Mystery of the death and Resurrection, He not only returned once more to the same revered position as before, but also exalted His sacred humanity in the presence of all creation. Consequently, we find adoration offered to Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate by all angels, men and the whole of creation, in the Book of Revelation:

Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the elders fell down and worshiped. (Rev 5:11-14)

In answer to the question whether there is continuity between the Old and the New Testaments with regard to the reverence due to God, the Letter to the Hebrews contrasts the manifestation of God on Mount Sinai in His encounter of the members of the Church with God now in the time of Jesus. It states that the members of the Church approach

…Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a New Covenant, and to the sprinkled Blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Heb 12:22-24)

In conclusion the author of Hebrews continues saying, “Therefore, since we are receiving a Kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed, our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:28-29). One point of contrast between the Old and New Testaments consists not in the fact that man no longer needs to show reverence; but rather that, as before there was only a foreshadowing of the realities to come, now there are the realities themselves. For that very reason we are called upon to respond to God’s all holy presence with even greater reverence and awe than in former times.

For this reason, the sense of reverence and awe due to God clearly marked the earliest Christian liturgies through which the Church comes into contact with the sacred humanity of Christ under the humble forms of the Sacraments. Moreover, irreverence in the liturgical assemblies often leads to sickness and death, according the testimony of St. Paul (cf. 1 Cor 11:17-32). In the ancient Liturgy attributed to St. James the Apostle, for example, we find the offertory prayer called the Cherubic Hymn:

Let all mortal flesh be silent, and stand with fear and trembling, and meditate nothing earthly within itself: For the King of kings and Lord of lords, Christ our God, comes forward to be sacrificed, and to be given for food to the faithful; and the bands of angels go before Him with every power and dominion, the many-eyed Cherubim, and the six-winged Seraphim, covering their faces, and crying aloud the hymn, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

The Present Crisis in Sense of Sacred

Throughout the history of the Catholic Church there continued, in different forms, expressions of this same sense of reverence in the sacred Liturgy. Despite the continual formation that has been offered from the earliest records of the Old Testament on through the history of the Christian Church, the last few centuries have witnessed a widespread loss of the “sense of the sacred” in many areas of culture and society, and even within the Church. There are many different causes for this loss. In the area of philosophy, agnostic rationalism which has formed a large part of modern culture and education excludes a priori any possibility of God entering into the historical order of man. For this reason human experience, in this world-view, is absolutely secular, having no contact whatsoever with the holiness of God. Therefore, nothing in human experience is truly sacred in the proper sense of the term.

This philosophy was the basis for the most pernicious heresy that the Church has ever known, the “synthesis of all heresies”: Modernism. This planted the seed of secularism or naturalism into certain theological currents within the Church. Among the various unfortunate logical consequences of this heresy is the denial of the historicity of the events related in the Old Testament which speak of the manifestations of God. In this way the formative character of these events is “explained away.”

Within the realm of culture the attacks against the sense of the sacred have ranged from subtle to flagrant. More subtle are the humorous presentations of things that are sacred: the puns and jokes that are made by twisting the words of Sacred Scripture or the comical presentation of sacred ministers or sacred rites. Often these are done with such wit and ingenious skill that it is difficult not to be taken in by their cleverness. But at the same time it is difficult to take delight in such things without in some measure losing the sense of reverence which the sacred things of God and His Church deserve. Meditation on the sacred character of the things of God as well as a certain vigilance is needed to avoid being affected by these attacks.

In the area of the celebration of the sacred Liturgy a casualness and carelessness which are diametrically opposed to the attitude proper to this sacred action have been introduced in certain places. In particular the music that is used, instead of communicating a sense of humble awe, all too often introduces sentimental, sensual or profane associations which are altogether alien to the spirit of the Liturgy. The lack of discernment in attempts to “inculturate” other elements of contemporary culture into the sacred Liturgy have also had adverse consequences. Pope John Paul II observed this problem and spoke of it to a group of American Bishops:

After the experience of more than thirty years of liturgical renewal, we are well placed to assess both the strengths and weaknesses of what has been done, in order more confidently to plot our course into the future which God has in mind for His cherished People. The challenge now is to move beyond whatever misunderstandings there have been and to reach the proper point of balance, especially by entering more deeply into the contemplative dimension of worship, which includes the sense of awe, reverence and adoration… [These] are fundamental attitudes in our relationship with God.
(Ad limina address to Bishops of Northwest USA, Oct. 9, 1998)

A Relationship Both Intimate and Intense

It was mentioned that the Old Testament was the mere foreshadowing of the New and, for this reason, the New Testament calls for even greater reverence. However, there is another fundamental difference between the two Covenants: the foreshadowed realities are not simply now present, but are present in us through the possibility offered us in Christ to be partakers in the divine nature. What the angels enjoyed in the Old Testament, union with God through the divine life of grace, has finally become ours through Jesus Christ (cf. Heb 4:1-16). The divine Son calls us to share in the divine life and to an intimate familiarity, such as the beloved disciple enjoyed, reclining on the breast of the Savior (cf. John 13:23).

But there remains at the same time a clear sense of His majesty as expressed when the same beloved disciple fell prostrate in profound adoration upon seeing Christ at beginning of the Book of Revelation (1:17). This tension between a certain reverential fear and filial confidence consequent upon intimate spiritual union is essential to Christian spiritual maturity. This is a quality found in the writings of the great mystics. This balance can be seen when the Angel of Peace appeared to the three children of Fatima. He taught them by his example to pray with their foreheads bowed to the ground. After his departure, Lucia described what they felt:

The atmosphere of the supernatural which surrounded us was so intense that we hardly noticed our own existence for a long period of time. We stayed in the same position in which he had left us and repeated the prayer again and again. The presence of God was so intense and intimate to us that even between ourselves we could not say a word. On the next day we were still surrounded by the same atmosphere. It only disappeared gradually.

This perception of God’s presence being at once “intense and intimate” is the sense of the sacred that the holy angels want man to recover and cultivate. Of particular assistance in this is the cultivation of forms of devotion which express at once these seemingly opposed postures, as stated in a recent document: “Popular piety has an innate sense of the sacred and the transcendent, manifests a genuine thirst for God and ‘an acute sense of God’s deepest attributes: fatherhood, providence, constant and loving presence’ and mercy” (Congregation for Divine Worship, Directory on Popular Piety, 61).

In a very special way, the seasons of Advent and Christmas are times of grace which provide opportunities for special acts of devotion and piety. Our meditation on the mystery of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, together with our devout practices lead us to an ever deeper sense of the intimacy of God’s presence among us, particularly in the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. The Christ Child, with His little arms out-stretched, bids us ever closer to enjoy His loving embrace. At the same time, the Magi who traveled thousands of miles to pay homage to the King of the Jews allow us to sense the sacredness of God’s presence in this divine Child. Like them, let us fall down on our knees and worship Him in humble Adoration (cf. Mt 2:11).

Fr. Basil Nortz, ORC

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