Detail from Landscape with Moses and the Burning Bush, by Domenico Zampieri, 1610-1616

 God said, “Come no nearer!
Remove the sandals from your feet,
for the place where you stand is holy ground. (Exodus 3:5)


  The Burning Bush


     I was fascinated by the image of the burning bush when I was a little boy.  I was also intrigued by God’s demand that Moses remove his sandals.  What exactly is “holy ground,” I wondered. How was this dirt different from the dirt twenty feet away?

      The meaning “holy” is well worth considering on this 3rd Sunday of Lent. What does it really mean? The word “holy” itself comes from an Old English word which means “separated” or “set aside for God.”  The synonym “sacred” is derived from a Latin word which means the same thing.  Both are used to translate the Hebrew word qadosh, whose literal meaning, according to the Ancient Hebrew Research Center, is “set apart for a special purpose.” The ground upon which Moses meets God is separated from ordinary ground, and so Moses needs to leave behind his ordinary footwear before he can stand on it. He mustn’t bring the worldly dust into the sacred precinct.  He needs to meet God on God’s terms, not his own.


 Sacred and Profane 

     While we don’t take our shoes off before we enter a church, the same principle applies to us as well. Our churches themselves are holy ground, of course.  They are formally consecrated, which comes from the same Latin word as “sacred.” They are set aside for God’s purposes. The same is true of the Mass itself.  It’s an action that’s set aside, separated, from the usual events of our lives.  The priest wears clothes for liturgical worship that he doesn’t wear anywhere else (and the rest of us don’t wear at all). We hear music that is different from ordinary music (or is supposed to be).  We also use a distinctive language.

     You can see this reality, by the way, in the word “profane,” which originally meant no more than “not sacred.”  It comes from the Latin words pro, in front of, and fanum, shrine. When the presiding priest was sacrificing the victim at the altar, the unconsecrated people remained outside of the sacred precinct.  They were literally in front of the shrine, pro fanum, rather than in it.


 Lent is Holy Ground 

     The season of Lent is also holy ground.  It is time set aside for a special purpose. Lent prepares us to relive the passion and death of Jesus, just as Moses’ time in the Sinai is preparing him to face Pharoah and the events of Passover.  And just as Moses leaves behind his sandals, and along with them the dirt of his everyday life, we also need to leave something behind. That’s one way, at least, of understanding the sacrifices and deprivations of Lent.

Sacred Space: blessing a new altar rail at St. Joseph Church in Macon, GA (

     There’s another message for us here, as well.  The purpose of religion isn’t to put God to work for us (as if such a thing were even possible). Religion is intended to reconnect us to Him (religio = “a binding back”), not the other way around. All the things that are “set aside” for God’s purposes  (sacraments, sacramentals, sacred space, sacred music, sacred language) are meant to draw us out of ourselves  and into His orbit.  A sacred space tells me I’m no longer on my own turf. Sacred language tells me that I’m no longer in my own world.  Sacred liturgy takes me out of myself.  It’s not about bringing God down to my level, it’s about lifting me closer to him.


  Take Off Your Sandals 

     And so it is with the Lent.  When we shed some of our worldly pleasures or pursuits during the penitential season, it is to remind us that we need to set aside our wordly disposition as well.  “If you do not repent,” Jesus tells us, “you will all perish as they did.” (Luke 13:5)  After all, we’re standing on holy ground.



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