First Fruits & the Sanctification of Space

by John Bergsma, appearing in Volume 7

E. A. Sövik in his influential book Art and Architecture in Worship laid out the theory that sacred space should not be visually distinguished from common spaces, because to do so would limit the sacred to distinct times and places and deny its influence on the entirety of life.

Sövik’s reasoning sounds logical, even profound, but it is a classic case of the triumph of rationality over wisdom, theory over reality. In practice, the removal of the distinction between sacred and common space has not led to the sanctification of all space, but to its profanation.  Rather than all space becoming sacred, now no space is sacred.  The holiness of liturgical celebration has not spread to every human endeavor, but the banality typical of our public life has spread into worship.

Sövik in fact presents us with a false dilemma: to set aside space as sacred does not imply the de-sanctification of all other space.  But how can this be?  I suggest we approach the problem of the relationship between sacred and common space through a mystical concept drawn from the well-springs of Sacred Scripture: that of firstfruits.

The key passage for our consideration is Romans 11:16, where St. Paul comments “If the firstfruits are holy, so is the whole batch of dough.”  St. Paul’s specific application of this concept in the context of Romans 11 is extremely rich, but need not detain us here; rather it is necessary for us to grasp the principle of “firstfruits.”  The ancient Israelites made a practice of bring the first produce of their harvests as an offering to the Lord’s sanctuary (Leviticus 23:9–14).  Later, Jewish custom adapted this practice to non-agricultural circumstances.  For example, a Jew making bread may have taken a prime portion of his dough and set it aside as holy to the Lord—perhaps to be made into a loaf for dedication to the Temple.  Apparently, it is this practice that St. Paul has in mind.

What is significant for us is that the ofering of the firstfruits was regarded as sanctifying the whole batch.  The whole harvest became blest; the “whole batch of dough” became holy.  I suggest this concept can be seen throughout Scripture in the dedication of time, space, and material goods to God.  Thus, the setting aside of the Sabbath as holy to the Lord sanctified the whole week (Genesis 2:1–3), the establishment of the Tabernacle sanctified the whole camp of the Israelites (Exod 40), and tithing upon material goods brought blessing upon one’s entire wealth (Malachi 3:7–12).

One would think that the dedication of part of our time, space, or goods specifically to God would render the rest unholy, but in fact it brings the blessing of God on the whole.  I propose we construe the construction of our churches as a firstfruits offer-ing of our physical space to God, that—far from rendering the rest profane—brings a new level of sanctity to all our space.  This mystical way of construing the relationship between sacred and common space defies the superficial rationality of Sövik’s approach, but is rooted in revelation and the reality of human experience.