The words “holy” and “sacred” are sometimes used interchangeably. I don’t think this should be the case, as there is a huge difference between the two. Sacred comes from the Latin, “sacrum.” You might recognize that “sacrum” is also the name of the bones in your pelvis. The ancient Romans called this part of the human body “sacred.” It is where the reproductive organs are, and, particularly in the female, it is from where life springs.
Thus, as one line of thinking goes, the sacred was recognized as something that had to be protected and secured. That is an excellent picture, actually, of how we employ sacredness. Human beings create sacred rituals that draw lines, build barriers, and protect and secure our space and turf. We feel we have to keep everything that is perceived as a threat on the outside, so as to guard our life and our future.
A quick example: Not long ago I was preparing to speak at a church and had my always handy coffee cup with me. Without any thought, I sat it down on the pulpit while I was reviewing my sermon notes. This church had more than a lectern or podium. It was truly the “sacred desk.”
A person came up to me and said, “I would appreciate it if you removed your cup. This furniture is sacred.” I complied but then added, “Yes, it is ‘sacred,’ but do you know why? Because it has been designated so by a church committee, not by God. God’s holiness is not violated by a Styrofoam cup” (I didn’t mean to be snarky, but I don’t think this person became a fan).
And a second example: During one of my pastorates we moved from a shabby little storefront building to a beautiful, magnificent sanctuary. It was an incredible upgrade with actual pews, a baptistery, a steeple, and some other sacred things. In our old location we had been picking up children in our little church van and bringing them to worship. These little people were tornadoes. Turned loose in an empty room, they would find something to destroy. When we moved to our new building we kept picking up these children, but I knew it would not last.
During our first week of Vacation Bible School in the new building one of the church mothers retrieved me from my office. She was enraged. “I need you to come with me right now!” she said. She took me to a hallway, pointed at the wall, and asked, “What are we going to do about that?”
Two and a half feet above the floor was a swatch of dirt staining the white wall. It ran down the entire length of the hallway stopping at one of the classroom doors. A classroom of these “dirty bus kids” had all run their hands down the wall as they walked to class, that’s all. But I knew then that there would be no place for them in our new space.
The sacred is the ritualistic space, community, and people-dividing behavior of human beings. The holy, however, is something completely different. Something holy is something that is “whole.” The root word is “health.” In other words, holiness is something that cannot be divided. It is something that is complete, unbroken, and intact.
Thus, holiness is not something defined by lines of segregation or by different shades of acceptance. It is defined by openness and welcome. The holy doesn’t alienate, it invites. The holy doesn’t separate, it welcomes. The holy doesn’t divide, it embraces.
Whereas what is sacred is a small restricted space that must be sheltered and guarded, the old Norse word for “holy” means “a large living room,” where people are made to feel very much at home. I pray that God makes us holy: Whole, healthy, welcoming people! But I also pray that he never allow us to become a sacred people, for when we lose our ability to be hospitable, inviting the outsider in, we have lost our unique witness in the world.