How Does a Place Become Sacred?

6 July 2009. Monday of the Fourteenth Week in Ordinary Time
Genesis 28, 10-22; Psalm 91; Matthew 9, 18-26

How does a place become sacred? The first reading is a story of the origins of Bethel as a divine shrine. Fleeing Esau’s wrath in the land of Canaan, Jacob profoundly experiences God in Bethel. He uses a stone for a pillow and dreams of a stairway that led to heaven, a “gateway to heaven” (v. 17). In ancient times, they believe that there are gateways or places where heaven and earth meets. Jacob recognizes the sacred and consecrates the stone which he calls Bethel, the house of God. He then sets it up as a memorial stone. Later on, Bethel becomes an important cultic center of the Israelites until it was destroyed (2 Kings 23, 15). In the life of Jacob, this experience becomes pivotal. It provides the link from his previous life in Canaan to his future life in Haran where he meets his wives, particularly Rachel who became the mother of Joseph and Benjamin.

In our time, we build churches or shrines at places with divine significance. Where there is a religious experience such as apparitions or an event with spiritual import such as the birthplaces of holy persons, a shrine is built. The whole of Rome is sacred because Peter and Paul were martyred there. But the buildings do not make it sacred. It is the people who associate the place with a divine personal and communal experience and God who is the source of that experience, that makes it sacred. The people are the pilgrims who frequent the place and those who come for a very special intention. These sacred structures convey all sorts of memories that point to the existence of the God. It strengthens their faith, deepens their trust and enkindles their hope.

There are many ways in which we experience God. It may be a positive or a negative experience. People feel God’s presence in family, friendships and intimate relationships. Parents may point to childbirth. Artists attribute inspirations to the divine. Some would find the experience of forgiveness or the beauty of nature as an experience of God. On the other hand, some finally return to the Lord when they experience death and failure in their lives. Some turn to the Lord when they are afraid or anxious. However, the memories of these experiences can be enhanced by the places where they occur: the cafe where they first met, the park where friendship blossomed, the restaurant where the guy proposed marriage or even the mango tree on whose trunk the lovers carved their names. In our daily lives, whenever we associate profound and memorable experiences of God with a place, that place becomes significantly sacred.

And like the people of Israel, whenever they pray on the altar at Bethel, they remember Jacob. They remember that God has not abandoned them. The same way with the women in the Gospel. The woman with the hemorrhage will remember how she was healed when she touched Jesus’ tunic. The daughter of Jairus will remember how she was brought back to life when everybody else declared her dead. Or Jairus himself who witnessed God’s mercy.

It is easy to see God in specific shrines and sacred places in the world. But it would be a challenge to open our eyes to discover that every single space in the world and in the universe has been made holy by Jesus who became one like us. This is the truth of the Incarnation. For the ancient Israelites, there are places where the realms of heaven and earth meet; however, for Christians, heaven and earth meet in every single nook and cranny in our internal world and in the vast universe.

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