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What does the Church call sacred and why? What is the proper use of the sacred?

Response: According to the Code of Canon Law (Codex Iuris Canonici [CIC], c. 12-5), a place is said to be sacred if it is designated for divine worship. Such things must be used according to their purpose in divine worship to the exclusion of any common or ordinary usage. Sacred times are those times set apart in which “the astonishing actions of the Savior God” are commemorated in order to give God thanks and perpetuate their remembrance throughout all generations (Catechism, nos. 1163, 1164).

Discussion: Book IV, Part III of the Code of Canon Law provides the norms that govern sacred places and times.[1] The word sacred simply denotes something that is “set apart.” Contained within the idea is that a thing or place[2] is set apart “to” something and, thus, “from” things other than that purpose or use for which it was separated. It is not necessary to list each and every instance when a thing cannot be used. The designation of a thing, its “setting apart,” already excludes every profane use. The thing is now “holy” (i.e., set apart). An example from common life that one can most easily understand
comes from the practice of making a budget. If one “sets aside” so many dollars to pay the house payment, one need not make a list of everything that those particular dollars may not be used to purchase.

Sacred Places and Things

Sacred places listed in the Code of Canon Law include churches, oratories, private chapels, altars, and cemeteries. Each of these is a place in which Most High God is worshiped by His people, or in the case of a cemetery where the bodies of His people are laid until that final day. Though we may benefit in many ways from being present at these places, their essential purpose is the glory of God. However, our participation in divine worship is utilized by God through sacraments and sacramentals for the sanctification “of every event in our lives with the divine grace which flows from the Paschal mystery of the
Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ.”[3]

The designation of places for divine worship has always been central to the worship of God. This is not for any reason of need originating in God. He made all things that are, and nothing can contain Him (cf. Is. 66:1-2, cf. Acts 7:48-50). This being the case, what obviously presents itself is that God cannot be known or approached by anything in His creation, including man who is made in God’s image and likeness. St. John confirms, “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (Jn. 1:18). Therefore, it was through the law and the prophets, tabernacles and
temples, and special days of feast or penance that God brought His people to Himself.

Because God is the Creator, a certain stamp of His image is in creation. At the least, any person can look at creation and know that a transcendent Creator exists (Rom. 1:19-20). However, God took some created things and designated them to be holy, set apart for divine worship. Even from the whole earth, God set aside one geographical place under the Old Covenant that was central to all worship, which was Jerusalem (cf. Jn. 4:20-22).

What about the New Covenant? Did this use of created things for God’s glory and praise end? Some would argue that God had to use all these things prior to the Incarnation, but since Christ came such things are no longer needed. Unfortunately, such thinking is more a product of modern day forms of Gnosticism and philosophical nominalism than it is biblical or Christian.[4] Further, it is impossible as “embodied persons” that we should escape symbols and the use of things in our worship of God. The question is not sacred things versus no sacred things, but rather which sacred things will be used and what
significance will we understand them to possess.

Christ can rightly be called the “icon” of the Father (cf. Jn. 1:14-18, 14:6-9). God made Himself known by actually coming among us in the flesh. This in no way precludes the use of sacred things. What the New Covenant has done is change the central place of worship, which is now heaven itself around the throne of God. No longer do we travel once a year to Jerusalem for this purpose, but wherever we participate in divine worship, we enter right into heaven itself (cf. Jn. 4:21-24).

The New Covenant itself is full of material signs: an Incarnation, water in Baptism, bread and wine, oil for anointing, and so forth. The Bible further speaks of the altar of the New Covenant (cf. Heb. 13:10). The use of material things for sacred purposes does not detract from God’s glory. It is a very appropriate way to give glory to the Creator of all things, honoring Him by setting aside things to use only for worship. If I set aside a tuxedo instead of jeans for a wedding, it is not to honor the tuxedo, but to honor the occasion. Even more obvious, when a young man “sets aside” his body for his bride, his intent is not to glorify his body! Something is set aside, not as an end in itself, but to give glory to that for which it was separated.

General Norms

Canon 1205 defines a sacred place as “those which are designed for divine worship or for the burial of the faithful by a dedication or a blessing.” Canon 1210 specifies that any use must serve the “exercise or promotion of worship, piety, or religion.” An ordinary may in “an individual case” permit a use other than those listed if it is “not contrary to the holiness of the place,” but any use “not consonant with the holiness of the place is forbidden.”

Central to divine worship is the altar. The Eucharist, the “source and summit of the Christian life,”[5] is celebrated on the altar, thus making it worthy of particular mention. The altar in the Old Testament, a place of sacrifice, prefigured the sacrifice of the Cross. The altar of the New Covenant is a place where that single, once for all time sacrifice is made “under sacramental signs. The altar is also the table of the Lord, to which the People of God are invited” (Catechism, no. 1182).

“An altar, whether fixed or movable, must be reserved for divine worship alone, to the absolute exclusion of any profane use” (c. 1239). The language of this canon, in terms of law, excludes it from the case in canon 1210, whereby a bishop may grant permission for a use of sacred places other than divine worship not contrary to the holiness of the place. The bishop may not grant this permission for the altar. To offer a concrete example, if an ordinary permits the use of a church for a passion play or concert of sacred music,[6] the altar cannot be utilized in the play or for a music stand in a concert. It is to be left alone.

When we approach individual furnishings in the church building (lecterns, the Tabernacle, etc.), how is it determined what is appropriate or inappropriate for their use? With the exception of the strict exclusion concerning the altar, the decision for uses other than divine worship is within the competency of the ordinary. The two limitations being that it may not be inconsonant with the “holiness of the place” and that exceptions are “for individual cases” and not “normal” occurrences. From canon 1210 this is understood to be things which “serve the exercise or promotion of worship, piety, or religion.” In
approaching a particular sacred object, one must ask how specific a purpose was the thing made for. The purpose of an altar, for example, is very specific. It is intrinsically linked to the Eucharistic sacrifice. Another example would be the Tabernacle. There is no other purpose of the Tabernacle than the reservation of the Divine Eucharist and subsequently its adoration. Thus, the Tabernacle should not be used as “storage” for other things, even if those other things are themselves holy. One reason is that the Tabernacle is not for “storage,” and another is that people adore and pray to God almighty who is present in the Tabernacle. No matter how holy something is, Jesus Christ present in the Eucharist clearly takes precedence.

Sacred Times

With the creation of matter, God also created time. Besides physical being, “time is another dimension to human existence.”[7] Like all other created things, time is made to give glory to the Creator and to be made holy unto Him. This “sanctification” of time is expressed through prayer, especially the Liturgy of the Hours. Each moment of time is made for the glory and praise of God (cf. Catechism, nos. 1174-1178).

The liturgical year, or calendar, is a means of accomplishing the sanctification of time. Throughout the year we journey through the life of our Lord and its key events. The liturgical year also creates a certain balance and rhythm in our lives. There are times of fasting and times of feasting. There are times of more intense prayer, contemplation and penance, and also times of celebration and rejoicing.

Canon law divides sacred times into two categories: feast days and days of penance. There are sacred days for the Church universal and other days particular to a diocese. By setting apart certain days, calling them a sacred time, we are lifted out of the ordinary and reminded of the eternal. And, just like sacred places, the observance of sacred times also serves to sanctify us in order for us to be made holy unto the Lord.

On certain feast days the faithful are obligated to attend Mass. In addition to the others mentioned in canon 1246, each and every Sunday is a Holy Day of Obligation. The Holy See may grant permission to the conference of bishops to transfer or suppress a feast day or a day of penance (c. 1244§102, 1246§2). Special feast days or days of penance for a diocese may be decreed by the diocesan bishop in individual circumstances (c. 1244§2).

Divine law requires all Christians to do penance. To assist the faithful in this obligation, the Church considers every Friday throughout the year and the entire season of Lent to be days of penance for the Universal Church (c. 1250).

Sacred times not only bring glory to God and bestow His grace to us, but they insure that the Gospel will continue to all generations. Just like the Passover, for example, calling to mind the life of Christ and the truths of the Gospel by setting apart special times enables us to perpetuate the memory of the “astonishing acts of the Savior God.” The beneficiaries are our children and our children’s children and subsequently for the sanctification of the
whole world. God is holy. So for His glory, places and things are made holy and should be respected and observed as such. “Holy things to the Holy.


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