Recently I’ve been doing some research on iconostases and other forms of liturgical screens, including the various barriers and veils in the Jerusalem temple, European rood screens, and the more recent altar rail. Some of these barriers have at times served practical purposes, clarifying spaces where certain people should stay and protecting access for others who need to be able to come and go. Early Church writers describe scenes of rather unruly congregations; against pushy worshipers, the ministers of ritual in some cases needed the protection of a raised walkway to get to an ambo in the center of the nave! At another period, monastic churches included walls separating the choir, to provide privacy as the community came and went from the cloister.
Most often, though, these steps or walls or rails or curtains demarcate increasingly sacred space. Passing through them means entering into proximity to the holy. So we have our sanctuary, our tabernacle, our Holy of Holies, and only those prepared and deputed are to enter into such space. Yet while the priests have their work of consecration to do in one space of the church, members of the laity also have their own work of prayer to do in another space, consecrating their lives and the world to God. Both the ordained and those belonging to the priesthood of all believers have a consecratory role to play within a sacred space.
In today’s world, this arrangement may seem a little old fashioned. How undemocratic, to give certain roles and spaces to certain people, to suggest that one might live and work in greater proximity to the holy than another. We like to remember that God is everywhere. In a time of pandemic, when so many have been cut off from the fullness of access to holy ritual space, we want to offer the comfort of remembering God’s transcendence. We know instinctively that God can traverse time and space in the sacred Word, in acts of charity, and in other forms that do not depend on being together in this particular time, in this particular space. Holiness is not bound only to the few. And yet, if all space were the same, if all time were the same, how would we remember that God is HERE, NOW? The act of consecrating this space for God, this time for God, this person for God is to mark that the holy is here. And if it really is holy, we must take care. The mysterium tremendum et fascinans is not a force to be messed with. It is a mystery so powerful it could kill us, and yet it is fascinating. We are drawn back to it again and again. The holy matters.
In a time of increasing secularization, perhaps it is the suggestion that “it doesn’t matter” that rubs the most. Yes, having a relationship with God matters. It matters if we have access to the sacraments. It matters if we observe the opening of Advent. It matters if we are attuned to our soul’s being not quite ready to enter into the full presence of God yet. The universal call to holiness may sometimes feel like a democratization of access to God, as if we’re all the same, as if all time and space were the same. And yet we are different from each other, each with our particular role to play, each with our particular space to occupy, our particular part of the world to consecrate. Access to God matters.
As we enter into the mystery of Advent this year, let us prepare to encounter the holy as if moving through the space of a gracefully demarcated church, passing from the ordinary through the liminal space of the narthex, into the communal ship of the nave, into communion with the saints and all the holy ones who invite us from the sanctuary. In a world where it can be hard to know exactly where God is right now, let us be open to entering into proximity with the holy.