We tend to be very protective about “our space.” We’d be up-in-arms if a neighbor, when building his garage, erected a couple of feet of his structure on our side of the property line. “Close-talkers” who violate our personal space by speaking directly in our face—they get on our nerves. Even as children, we quickly take a stand when a sibling tries to “take over” the space of our bedroom. Our space, our turf, having elbowroom—these matters matter to us.
They also matter to God, for similar yet different reasons. Though he is everywhere, throughout history the Lord has chosen this or that space in which to disclose himself, even to locate himself on a (relatively) permanent basis. The place where God appears or dwells ceases to be common ground; it becomes holy. Dust, rocks, vegetation, wood, metals, everything roundabout soaks in his sacredness. There, on holy ground, the liturgy is celebrated, but with an acute awareness that we are on God’s turf, not our own. We have stepped across the threshold into that space where heaven has sunk its roots into this world’s soil.
“Moses, Moses!” the voice called out. The eighty-year-old man must have felt his heart skip a beat or two at this unexpected salutation. Unexpected, for the address came not from the lips of a man, woman, or child, but from the mouth of a bush. And not just any bush, but one that had already raised his eyebrows and wooed him closer by its sheer weirdness. For there, where Moses had led his father-in-law’s flock, on the mount called Horeb, was a bush full of flames but void of ashes. To himself, Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned,” (Exodus 3:3). And as he did, he heard his own name twice invoked by these tongues of fire.
The voice, of course, was that of an angel. Or was it? Was this fiery being one of God’s celestial hosts, or someone with an even higher rank? Yes, we read that “the angel of the Lord [‘Yahweh’ in Hebrew] appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush,” (3:2). But then we read that “when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush,” (3:4). The being in the bush goes on to say, “I am the God of your father…” (3:6), at which disclosure “Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God,” (3:6). So was it an angel, a creature of heaven? No. In Hebrew, “angel” simply means “messenger”. This messenger from God was God. Indeed, Christian tradition, from ancient times, has identified this messenger as the Son of the Father.
Jesus says to Moses: “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground,” (3:5). But what exactly does “holy ground” mean? What does “holy” mean? It does not mean what the average man-on-the-street thinks it means. Far too many wrongly equate holiness with morality, so that a “holy woman” is a morally upright lady—even a “holier than thou”, as we say. Holiness is not something achieved but received. To be holy means to be especially claimed by God as his very own, brought into contact with himself. Thus, the holy church is God’s special people, chosen by him. Holy Baptism is God’s special washing, ordained by him. A believer is holy because Christ has made him part of his own holy body. Moses stood on “holy ground” because he stood in the presence of Christ, on soil made sacred by the manifestation of the holy, holy, holy God.
One does not act on holy ground the way one acts on common ground. God had Moses remove his sandals—shoes being considered highly unclean (just think of all the filth you step on every day). Later, Moses’ successor Joshua, would be given the same instruction in a similar circumstance (Joshua 5:13-15). The Bible, while giving very precise details about what priests were to wear during the liturgy, never mentions footwear. Jewish tradition tells us the likely reason: priests who served in the tabernacle and temple did so barefoot, year round, for like Moses and Joshua, they stood on holy ground.
In the OT, the acme of sacred space was the Holy of Holies, God’s throne-room in the sanctuary (Leviticus 16:2). Rippling outward from there were spheres of holiness: the outer room of the temple (the “holy place”), the holy courts, the holy city, the holy land. Today, where Christ is present to speak to his people, to deliver his gifts, that space is sacred. So in the Kyrie we pray for “this holy house and for all who offer here their worship and praise.” In the “holy house” of his church, where the liturgy is celebrated, there we stand on holy ground. Our Holy of Holies is around the altar, where Jesus is present in his body and blood, much more intimately than he was present in the burning bush. As Moses removed his sandals, so we too acknowledge by how we act and what we do, that we stand on sacred soil. We have our entertainment in the movie theater; we have our fun and games in a gym; but in the holy house of Christ, we have our liturgy. Or, rather, in the liturgy, Christ has us, filling us with himself, that we might “share his holiness,” (Hebrews 12:10).
The “holy house” of Christ is not a living room, stadium, or coffee house. It is a place of reverence. All too often, though, we treat it as common ground, betraying by our speech, actions, and dress that the sanctuary is a space no different than any other.
Christ does not play hide-and-seek with us. He reveals and is found. He is found where he doles out his gifts, in the holy waters of baptism, from the holy pulpit, around the holy altar. In those zones of sanctity, where his liturgy is prayed, our heavenly Lord is literally down-to-earth. With Moses, Joshua, and the priest of old, we take off our shoes, for we stand on holy ground. And Christ, ever the Servant, washes our feet, our hearts, our minds, our souls, with the cleansing liquid of his grace.
A Hymn for the Dedication of a Sanctuary
O God who deigns to dwell below,
Where trees of life and knowledge grow,
Within the unburned bush aflame,
In temple walls that house Your Name;
O Word made Flesh, among us dwell;
Make this Your house, Emmanuel,
And clothe us in Your saving grace—
A holy priesthood, chosen race!
Our prayers, as incense, now ascend,
As Father, Spirit, Son descend.
Angelic choirs round heaven's throne
Unite their voices with our own.
For where the font and altar's found,
There heaven's wed to earthly ground.
Our God unveils His holy place
To welcome us before His face.
The sacrifice of praise we sing,
The offering of our lives we bring,
To Christ, our Priest, whom we confess,
Within this house of Sabbath rest.
May Eden's joy be ours once more,
This sanctuary, heaven's door,
That weak and wounded souls find here
The God who dries their every tear.