There is a disconcerting passage of Scripture that starkly illuminates the concept of sacredness. I vacillated over whether to draw upon it for this post, but couldn’t divine (pun intended) how this might take shape apart from it.
It’s the story of Uzzah and the Ark of the Covenant (in 1 Sam. 6 and 1 Chr. 13). For the uninitiated (or those only initiated by Raiders of the Lost Ark), the Ark was an ornate chest of sorts containing a number of sacred objects collected during the Israelite’s miraculous escape from Egypt: some manna, a staff that budded (and once turned into a snake), and the tablets of the law. Above all, however, it was said to be inhabited by God’s Presence.
During Israel’s early monarchy, the Ark was relegated to an almost superstitious object—toted into battle like a talisman. God caused this misuse of the Ark to result in its being captured by Israel’s Philistine enemies. It was eventually returned and took up interim residence in a hamlet called Beth Shemesh, at the house of a man named Abinadab.
Then reverent king David decreed that the Ark should find a more honorable home in Jerusalem. He entrusted the task of transport to two men named Ahio and Uzzah, Abinadab’s sons. In a profoundly practical frame of mind, these two men hoisted the Ark up onto an oxcart—sending it along in much the same fashion as it had come to them. (See 1 Sam. 6)
And so it was that the dwelling place of God’s Presence came bumping along out of Beth Shemesh en route to Jerusalem, heaved lurchingly along by oxen. At a point just outside Jerusalem the cart hit an uneven patch of road, and the Ark began to teeter. Observing this, Uzzah reached out and braced it with his hand. Here we encounter the episode that is likely troubling for us, and was undoubtedly troubling for those present.
“The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down, and he died there beside the ark of God.” (2 Sam. 6:7)
Uzzah was dead. The new name of the location became, “Perez-Uzzah”—”burst out against Uzzah”. It made David angry. Maybe it makes you angry. It seemed a capricious and cruel way for God to respond. It was unnerving, to say the least.
But we find, situated in this dismay, a stunning depiction of sacredness; and the broader context means everything.
How adrift we’ve become from the sacred. How incapable of recognizing its appearances. The late magical-realist author Gabriel García Márquez wrote a comical and revealing fable of this in his short story A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings. During a monsoon season in an unnamed beach village, a family discovers an unexpected visitor:
“. . .an old man, a very old man, lying face down in the mud, who, in spite of his tremendous efforts, couldn’t get up, impeded by his enormous wings.”
The husband and wife take it to be an angel, knocked from the sky by the torrential downpour. (They surmise that it had been coming to take their sickly son.) What ensues is a study in absurdity. The visitor is dragged into their chicken coop, where it lies among mud and table scraps. A priest is called out to ascertain the precise nature of this being:
He argued that if wings were not the essential element in determining the difference between a hawk and an airplane, they were even less so in the recognition of angels. Nevertheless, he promised to write a letter to his bishop so that the latter would write his primate so that the latter would write to the Supreme Pontiff in order to get the final verdict from the highest courts.
Eventually the word gets out, and the being, which is unquestionably an angel, becomes a curiosity. The family charges a 5¢ viewing fee. Some come to study it, some come seeking healing, and still others to pluck out his feathers. The clergy make important inquiries, such as, “how many times he could fit on the head of a pin.” Meanwhile, the family becomes exceedingly wealthy from the preposterous glut of gawkers.
However, we’re told of the angel (in a consummately Márquez aside), “His only supernatural virtue seemed to be patience.”
The circus ensues until the curiosity of the old man is eclipsed by a “traveling show of a woman who had been changed into a spider for having disobeyed her parents.” (Please go read it next. It’s sublime.) The crowds thin, and the angel’s health improves unnoticed, until one day he succeeds in flying away.
Yet I wonder if the supernatural virtue of patience might be for us an important focal point, a keyhole through which to notice something of the sacred in the fate of Uzzah. Would it be reductionist to locate the occasioning of God’s furious “bursting out” on the mere event of bracing one’s hand against something so sacred? Put another way, was the bracing of hand against Ark merely the apotheosis of an inexcusable sacrosanct trend toward which God could no longer hold His peace?
There was an exacting and symbolic prescription by which the Ark was to be transported. The reading material was readily available. Could God’s displeasure have begun with the failure even to consult the literature? Or did it date back further to what had become a general neglect toward God’s preferences within Israel’s recent history? Had they habitually taken His name in vain; viz., been called by His name with little or no evidence? This was only the latest instance in which the Ark had been found teetering, for it had been tumbling down into the nether for several generations hence—and the sacred Presence with it.
This is how the sacred escapes us—barely noticed, over time, by semi-conscious degrees. We neglect what is most holy, and, therein, show a burgeoning contempt for the sacred. This begs of us the question, “Where am I being negligent toward the sacred?” The short answer is everywhere! To quote Saint Paul, “To the pure, everything is pure.” This might locate sacredness as much in the subject as the object; the sacred-minded perceive the world in sacred hues. This, of course, positively reframes the whole discussion: is your life sacramental? Being human is a sacred affair, because humanness is sacredness.
CS Lewis drew out the implications of this in his essay The Weight of Glory,
The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back. . .
It is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit. . . Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.
Digest what Lewis is saying. Your politics and passions and even your patriotism are but gnats in comparison to human sacredness—your own, and that of your far and wide neighbors. No earthly thing is so sacred, save one (in Lewis’s view).
Maybe this is why Jesus cautioned against the fool-heartedness of gaining the world yet forfeiting the soul? Maybe this is why Jesus answered the obstinate lawyer’s question of, “Who is my neighbor?” with a story aimed at the core of his deficient neighborliness: “Which of these do you think was a neighbor to the man?”
If it weren’t so sad, our klutziness with the sacred might be purely comical. Most satire does draw from these wells. And it may befit some laughter, but only from those who have first learned how to mourn. Sacred laughter is that of throwing up hands in exasperation, never that of the scoffing onlooker.
We are, all of us, bumping along through this world, more or less. None of us have received or offered “the awe and the circumspection proper” to such sacred vessels. We think nothing of major or minor exploitations, of indignities in multitude. We give little thought to how we might breathe the air of sacredness in and out; we’ve been conditioned against it in our age. We’re soaking in the sacrosanct. Am I wrong?
Jesus once warned, “Don’t give dogs what is sacred. Don’t throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.” Is this not the landscape of our age? Packs of dogs and herds of swine with no notion of the sacred; only thirsty for blood. But is it the landscape of our souls? Are we swine, dogs or worse? Are we letting ourselves become the profane products of our age? Have you surrendered yourself thus? Did you mean to?
It must be mentioned that the Jewish tradition subscribes to a two-age paradigm: the age that is, and the age to come. That Uzzah met such a jarring end in the age that is, cannot answer what came of him in the age to come. That is to say, there may yet be hope for him. (He himself, after all, was thrust into a puzzlingly inappropriate assignment.) But his death was a thunderclap: enough! The indignity had reached a caustic crescendo, and Jerusalem would not be allowed to watch the Ark—sometimes called “The Ark of the Testimony”—be trafficked down their streets like mere commodity!
Nor would the Living God have his sacred human vessels trafficked thus. Friends, this is, above all, serious—sacred.
What I’m saying is that Israel ought to have first been disconcerted with the carelessness with which the Ark was being (mis)handled; an unease toward its profane misplacement. What I’m saying is that we ought to be more disconcerted with the carelessness with which our fellow humans are (mis)handled; their profane misplacement! It is no wonder that “casual” and “casualty” share the same root idea of haphazard. (Nor that haphazard deconstructs into “hazardous happening”.) The very idea is that sacredness doesn’t come about on accident. The notion of sacred is “other”—set apart—”handle with care!”
Upon eventual circumspection (these things take time), David was found not only to transport the Ark according to its exacting standards, but to sacrifice an animal after every six steps; entering Jerusalem to shouts and music. More than that, David himself danced so uninhibitedly before the Ark that his wife said he should be ashamed of himself. (To which he replied, “I will make myself yet more contemptible than this!”) He was wearing almost nothing.
Many (most), in an age absent of the sacred, will name such revelry ridiculousness. When we uninhibitedly exalt our holy neighborly objects. I need only recall the ridicule my Lord endured when He, in his glory, was lifted up barely dressed in order to restore sacredness to our race. It was both the most sacred and profane moment in human history. Will it make you dance or sneer?
The Ark was never meant to be drawn by an ox. Expedient though that may be. It was meant to be carried steadily by sanctified persons. Not a careless hand slapped to its side, but a delicate and ceremonious processsion—slower, weightier, sacred, joyous. They were bearing the Presence of God! The same could be said for our own sacred processions; our sacred takings-up. We take up our own lives and our human dealings with sacred care; as curators; as curates!
Volumes have been written about how this is to be done, and we would do well to consult these rich materials. But this must issue forth from sacred instincts—a commitment to “awe and circumspection”—learning together how to apprehend and honor the sacred; though it be face down, in the mud, unable to get up despite tremendous efforts, impeded by enormous wings. Is this not a matter of life or death?