One of the beliefs shared by the great religions of the world is the importance of sacred time and space. Throughout the Hebrew tradition, sacred days and seasons recalled and celebrated what God had done in Israel’s life. Of prime importance was the celebration of the Passover and the Day of Atonement. For the earliest Christians, the first day of the week was a reminder and celebration of Jesus’ resurrection.
Likewise, there are certain places that are considered sacred. Isaiah’s vision of God took place in the temple, the sacred space for the Jews. But geographical locations were also important. Mountains and deserts often served as places where God appeared to people in the biblical narratives. Thus, both sacred time and space are vital to authentic worship and can function to draw us into the experience of God.
One aspect of sacred time is the holy seasons that have always been significant to the worship of the church. While our daily calendars structure our time of work and leisure, the Christian calendar structures the year of worship. The seasons of the church such as Advent, Christmas, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost create a sense of sacred order and serve to move us to the center of our faith; the work of God in the incarnation of Christ.
Furthermore, celebrating sacred seasons in worship connects us to the eternal church throughout the world. When we celebrate the sacred seasons we are participating in the eternal and universal language of the gospel that crosses the boundaries of gender, ethnicity, nationality, and culture. Yet, these sacred times are not merely celebratory reflections on the past; more importantly, they shape our symbolic world in the present, revealing to us the reality of God for our own lives and the hope we and the creation have in God’s good future.
We can even speak of the specific day of worship as sacred. Christians have designated Sunday as the Lord’s Day, the day set aside for the church’s worship of God. While there is no prescription as to the specific time on Sunday that corporate worship should take place, it is important to understand that whatever hour is set for community worship there ought to be clear demarcations that separate sacred time from secular time. Periods of communal worship should open by calling the people to the sacred time of worship, thereby designating the reason the church gathers.
The value of sacred time also necessitates a sacred order to the worship service. Worship that incorporates singing songs of praise, praying prayers of confession, celebration, and intercession, reading Scripture, confessing our faith as a community, passing the peace of Christ to others, sharing the Lord’s Supper, and hearing the proclamation of the word creates a sacred rhythm to the communal worship experience. This kind of worship values the importance of the theological drama of the gospel and functions to move the people of God to leave the sacred time of communal worship and to go and live out their faith in the secular time of the world.
Sacred space is also essential for worship. While the experience of God can occur anyplace, the sacred space of a church sanctuary can create an atmosphere that invites us to worship God. Sacred space would include the design of the structure itself; however, the use of specific objects in worship is also important to authentic worship.
Symbols such as the cross, and fixtures such as the pulpit, the Lord’s Table, and the baptismal fount or pool function to remind us of the foundations of our faith: the word of God, the sacrifice of Christ, and the renewal of the Spirit. While these objects should never be the recipients of our worship, they can and do serve as focal images that point to what God has done for us in Christ.
In efforts to be relevant, however, some churches have lost a sense of sacred time and space. These movements argue that the use of sacred time and space is outdated and does not create an atmosphere of spontaneity in worship. In some of these churches, traditional sacred seasons have been pushed aside for more topical themes and the sacred rhythm of worship has been replaced by appeals to emotionalism. Moreover, church sanctuaries have taken on a more contemporary decor in which the front of the church looks more like a concert stage than a sacred place.
But in an attempt to be relevant to our culture, these approaches to worship have dismissed the historical and theological importance of sacred time and space for worship. Much more than relevant to worship, sacred space and time can create worship experiences that draw us out of our egocentrism and invite us into the authentic worship of God.
Among the 6th century Celtic Christians of Ireland and Scotland the importance of sacred space and time were given the designation “thin places”. Thin places are places or times in which the barrier between the material world and the world of God become so thin that we can experience the presence of the divine. While the thin places in our personal worship can appear anytime and anywhere, the reverent use of time and space in shared worship can create thin places that invite us into the worship of God.