God does not need to separate the sacred and profane. We do.

Seven hundred and fifty-three years before the birth of Christ, on the 21st day of April, having killed his brother Remus, who preferred the Aventine Hill, Romulus yoked a bullock and a heifer to a plow and personally drew a deep furrow in the ground, marking, on the Palatine Hill, the sacred boundaries of his new city: Rome. His adherents followed closely behind the plow, insuring that any of the clods turned up by the harrow fell back within the sacred precinct.

The sacred zone would expand in the centuries that followed, but its significance never diminished. This was the pomerium, a place of peace. During the Republican period, Mars, the god of war, had no temple within the city. If a conquering general were allowed to parade through it, his soldiers none-the-less wore civilian dress, just as the Praetorian Guard served unarmed and in togas (they were called the cohors togata) within the sacred precinct.


Our word “holy” comes from the old English hālig, related to the German and Dutch heilig, carrying the sense of something “whole,” and therefore completely distinct from ourselves. God is holy in his very being. Religions are called holy because they grant us access to that which is utterly other and completely whole. To accomplish this, all religions separate the sacred from the profane.

The word “sacred” comes from a Latin root meaning, “cut off.” “Profane” is a combination of two words, the prefix pro, meaning in front of or outside, and fanum, which means temple. The profane, the non-sacred, was that which stood outside the sacred zone.

Something similar is recorded in Exodus. Moses is summoned into the presence of God and told:

“Come no nearer!
Remove the sandals from your feet,
for the place where you stand is holy ground.
I am the God of your fathers,” he continued,
“the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.”
Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God (3: 5-6).


Of course our Christian faith proclaims that Jesus is Emmanuel, God-with-us, the incarnate Son of the eternal Father. The central claim, therefore, of Christianity is that in the person of the Christ, God has sundered the barrier between the sacred and the profane. The earth itself, and our human nature, has become a dwelling place for the divine.

Previous to the Second Vatican Council, what Catholics call the “sanctuary” was demarcated from the rest of the assembly by a communion rail, which traces its origins back to the earliest construction of specifically Christian spaces. The Western communion rail is of a piece with the Eastern iconostasis—originally a curtain but eventually a screen—and the wall in medieval cathedrals, which separated the assembly from the sanctuary, called the rood screen.

That the assembly even entered the sacred dwelling is a distinctly Christian practice. An ordinary Greek or a Roman would no more have penetrated a temple than an ordinary Jew would have trod with the Temple’s most sacred precincts. But Christians were a plebs sancta, a holy people, a priesthood of believers who entered the sacred by right of baptism. They were the Body of Christ. What was once limited in the Incarnation was now spread throughout the world in a sacred assembly.

With the council, Catholicism also began to emphasize “the priesthood of believers” in its liturgical practice, without abandoning the thoroughly human need to separate the sacred and the profane. Even modern sanctuaries are marked by height or spatial distance from the assembly.

Is the separation purely functional or significant? Certainly in the first Christian structures it controlled the crowd, but it also helped humans to distinguish the sacred. God is of course free to break down the barrier between the sacred and profane whenever God likes. Humans are not, because we have an essential need for symbols. We communicate, we grasp our very selves, by way of signs.

When Leonard Bernstein composed his modern “Mass” (1971), a piece composed for “singers, players, and dancers,” he had the celebrant climatically throw the chalice to ground, dramatically signaling the demise, even the destruction, of the sacred in the modern world. It was great theater, but it could have no second act.

Shortly after the council, it was exciting to participate in home or dorm Masses, which eschewed most of the separation sewn into the liturgy. How exciting, how intimate it was to sit next to the priest on the rug! But what made sitting next to the priest thrilling was the intrusion into the sacred. In his person, the priest still insured the sacred, which so thrilled the parasites on the shag.

Baby Boomers take delight in tearing down walls. But how many walls can you tear down until the human world itself is flat, featureless and formless? And once it is, it no longer speaks to the human. It no longer allows us to share, by way of signification, in the divine. Prayer—liturgical or private—is not about the pursuit of feelings. It is the priestly privilege of attending, waiting upon the Lord.

God does not need to separate the sacred and the profane. We do. God doesn’t exist, or know himself, by way of signs or symbols. We do. When we tear down the sacred, we do not kill God. We strangle our humanity.

Exodus 3: 1-8a, 13-15  1 Corinthians 10: 1-6, 10-12  Luke 13: 1-9

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Reyanna Rice
2 years 10 months ago
"How exciting, how intimate it was to sit next to the priest on the rug! But what made sitting next to the priest thrilling was the intrusion into the sacred. In his person, the priest still insured the sacred, which so thrilled the parasites on the shag." "the parasites on the shag"....that is a little bit more than demeaning in my opinion. This whole sentence, even the whole article, has a tone of "clericalism" about it. Maybe Fr Klein was trying to be tongue in cheek.
ed gleason
2 years 10 months ago
A very good reflection. I remember well when I first experienced the priest inviting the small group up to surround the altar at a Mass for the small gathering. Being invited up to the sacred place appealed to me even though I had strong proletarian instincts, But if my culture had no appreciation for the sacred place I would have not have had that experience of the sacred place . We need to find and keep an appreciation for the sacred place w/o relying on clericalism. . .
Beth Cioffoletti
2 years 10 months ago
Exactly, Ed.
Beth Cioffoletti
2 years 10 months ago
Agree, Reyanna.
Beth Cioffoletti
2 years 10 months ago
Beth Cioffoletti
2 years 10 months ago
I am out of my depths. But isn’t that the point? I was confused by the article by Fr. Klein. Offended by his rebuke to those of us (baby boomers?) who had been enthused with the first Vatican 2 Masses, but also intrigued with his theology of God and the setting apart of sacred space. This has been my struggle all along with the Catholic Church. A version of clericalism that affects not just the priests, but all the rest of us who buy into it. There is, indeed, a faint thrill that goes along with sitting beside “the priest”. Fortunately I’ve known enough priests who have rejected that privilege to have gotten over it, but there are lingering memories from my childhood that go deep and I’m tempted to fall into it yet again. As opposed to — trusting my own God given truth. The wisdom and ordinariness and mystery and gift of my own life. There is no need to draw a line any more. I appreciate the comments of those here who have helped me get my bearings again.
Christine T.C.
2 years 10 months ago
If parasites obtain nourishment and protection while offering no benefit in return, then I guess I'm ok with being a parasite on the shag. It's thrilling!
Bishoy Dawood
2 years 10 months ago
This piece is a disaster. The example of the climax of Leonard Bernstein's “Mass” (1971), where the celebrant throws the chalice to the ground, is not a suitable example for the work of Christ in uniting the cosmos to Christ's self. The incarnation is ties everything to the person of Christ, making it sacred. The climax is rather the raising up of everything along with the chalice, because it is sacred. It's not that we've lost a sense of what's sacred and what's profane. We're in need of getting rid of this idea that there are profane things, and elevate all things to the sacred. What's getting destroyed is the sense of the profane, not the sense of the sacred.
Tom Poelker
2 years 10 months ago
Poor, clericalist, ahistorical, Fr. Klein. It was originally an altar rail, introduced to keep dogs away from the altar [just as the baldachino canopy was to keep birds from dropping things on the altar], not a communion rail, and neither it nor the iconostasis go back to the earliest Christian worship spaces which were based on the previous house churches or the basilica, and neither of them had anything more elaborate than a platform or the acoustically pragmatic apse. Christian sacred space concepts are unfortunate accretions from the association of the episcopacy with the imperial bureaucracy. For three hundred years before that, Christians met in homes or secret rooms to strengthen each other in the following of Jesus. Others went to unpopulated places for private prayer, something very different from the communal prayer which is the essence of liturgy. This "waiting upon the lord" thing is straight out of royal/imperial imagery, not the Gospels. Prayer is communicating with God, opening the heart and mind to God, sharing anxieties, giving thanks and praise, petitioning, repenting. Christianity is about the relationship of these things to the real world, not finding some sacred space, some escapist spirituality, some pie in the sky, some otherness away from loving our neighbors, feeding, visiting, clothing, healing them. There is a human desire [need?] for escapism to some "other" places/experiences, often fed by music, theater, the visual arts; and Christianity has been comfortable with this, especially when the wealthy are willing to subsidize such creations. However, these things are not the sacramental acts of the Christian community so much as its adjustment to various cultures. Washing, anointing, breaking open the Word of God, breaking the bread do not involve sacred spaces. These are acts of community, and Christianity is about building communities, not sacred spaces. Klein is stuck in the idea of laity sharing in the hierarchical [priest-ruling] role, instead of the ordained being merely the leader of the full, conscious, and active prayer of all present in the community-at-prayer. The presbyter does not bring the sacred. God is present; God's people are a holy people; they are "other" than the secular world. A fundamental question remains about how we expect to form Christian communities. Note the the expectation of Jesus being present where even two or three are gathered in His name and how such a place for them becomes sacred because of how it is used. Are our very restricted numbers of liturgical presiders and the resultant large assemblies in themselves motivations to create "sacred spaces" in which to emotionally manipulate people?


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