Beginners’ Theology of (Sacred) Space

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God The Place

The Hebrew Bible contains more than two dozen names for God which many of us have heard before: YHWH (“Lord”), Elohim (“God”), Sabaoth (“armies”), El-Shaddai (“The Omnipotent”), El-Elyon (“The Exalted One”). One of the more obscure names for God used by Jews is Ha-Makòm. This literally means “the place.” What does this signify? Is God a place? How did this rather ordinary word become one of God’s holiest names?

Paul Sciberras_1
Fr Paul Sciberras

What can we learn from Jacob’s Dream?

One of the most famous stories in the Book of Genesis, is Jacob’s dream where angels ascend and descend a ladder to heaven, quoted by Jesus himself in John 1:51. It begins with these words, “He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place” (Genesis 28:11). In Hebrew, “place” is makòm. Where is this place? It is strange that the Torah, which is usually full of geographical details, does not specify the location.

Place Transcending Space

According to an ancient Jewish Talmudic interpretation of this verse, the makòm which Jacob encountered is not a physical location, but God’s presence itself. The rabbis famously explained, “God is the place of the world, and the world is not His place.” In other words, God cannot be limited to one individual spot. Rather, God transcends space, and he is accessible to all people in all places. Indeed, God is The Space, accessible to all.

The Hebrew Scriptures end with 2 Chronicles, and 2 Chronicles end at 36:22-23: “Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: ‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him! Let him go up”. But that means that the temple is not standing anymore in Jerusalem! The Hebrew Bible ends with the stark reality of ‘The Temple is no more!’

The Christian Bible, towards its very end, at Revelation 21:22, has this to say: “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb”. The Christian Bible ends again with ‘The Temple is no more!’

These facts from the Bible itself should make us ask: how can evangelization push forward God’s presence in the world, when the most eminent symbol of his presence among his people, the Temple, is no more?

Isn’t that the meaning of the tearing apart of the segregative Temple Curtain at Jesus’ moment of death: “And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Mark 15:38). That was precisely the mission of Jesus: to make of every nation one body: “that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it” (Ephesians 2:15-16). In his passion, Jesus, the High Priest, made it possible for us to “have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrew 10:19-22).

A personal inner sanctum

Jesus knew exactly what he was asking of us when he commanded us that: “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6). The verb ‘go into’ is an aorist imperative (eíselthe – concentrating all the focus on the action itself, the ‘going into’ our room). The ‘Makòm’ gives us, on loan, land, space, the space of our inner room, and it is there where we can give him ‘place’, space.

Something more chewable

‘Makòm’ sounds like ‘magħkom’ in Maltese, ‘with you’. Isn’t Jesus the Immanu-El, the “God with us’? And wasn’t this made possible when “The Word of God became flesh and pitched his tent among us” (John 1:14)? Doesn’t this mean that when God asked us for some place, some space, he became The Place ‘with us’? When the two disciples who had been with John the Baptiser followed Jesus and asked him: “Where are you staying (or living)?” (John 1:38), he replied: “Come and see … they saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day” (v.39). Note a significant reversal of perspective, a change in interest: from the place where Jesus “was remaining” (not specified anywhere), to the place where the disciples “remained” (the place is specified as “beside him”. The true place where the disciples should “remain” is therefore “beside Jesus”. But he, as from the moment that the Incarnate Word dwelt amongst us (John 1:14), has become the “place” of Divine Presence in this world.

However, the original question was different: where does Jesus himself “remain”? Which is his “dwelling place”? The disciples do not ask for a specific place like his house, a geographical or anagraphical address (as translated by the Vulgate – ubi habitas?). Someone had said – I believe it was William of Saint-Thierry: Rabbi, where do you live (as in Vulgate). “Come, he said, and you will see. Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” We thank you, Lord …; we have found your place: your place is the Father, and the place of the Father is you”.

The two disicples were asking for his place, and after seeing it, they remained with him, at His Place, the Father.

The disciple who wants to serve Jesus must follow him; but Jesus adds a specific indication with regards to the place: “where I am, there shall also my servant be” (John 12:26). We have established that the place of Jesus is the Father. Thus, given that the disciple dwells “beside Jesus” (John 1:39), since the “place” of the disciple is Jesus, it follows that the disciple also is invited to “remain” in that “place” in which Jesus himself “remains”, that is in the Father. It is therefore an implicit invitation to enter, with Jesus and like Jesus, in the journey of the filial life (see John 1:12).  From a question about the exterior remaining and the place of Jesus, we have progressively proceeded to the interior, personal and spiritual “place”. The “place” of Jesus symbolically indicates his mystery as Son of the Father; this should also be the “place” of Jesus’ disciple.

Magħna, magħkom, makòm

If, with the two Disciples of Emmaus, we plead to him: “Stay with us” (‘ibqa’ magħna’) (Luke 24:29), he answers: “I am with you always, till the end of age” (‘jiena magħkom sal-aħħar taż-żmien’) (Matthew 28:20).

By Fr Paul Sciberras

Author: Joe Farrugia

Segretarjat għal-Lajċi.

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