Access your downloads at our archive site. Visit Archive
Magazine Article

The War of the Sacred

The word "sacred" is etymologically rich and revealing. It is associated with the Middle English for consecrate, the Old French for holy, the Indo-European for covenant making, the Old Norse for reconciled, and the Hittite for law.

  • Steve M. Schlissel,
Share this

The Sacred
The word "sacred" is etymologically rich and revealing. It is associated with the Middle English for consecrate, the Old French for holy, the Indo-European for covenant making, the Old Norse for reconciled, and the Hittite for law. The idea of the sacred takes us to the very center around which a society is organized. It underlies the premises that govern not merely religious ritual, but cultural organization as well. We cannot hope to have a proper understanding of our own cultural crisis apart from an understanding of the idea and the function of the sacred. For that which is regarded as intrinsically and originally sacred determines: 1) what else may be regarded as constitutionally sacred; 2) who and what will be regarded as functionally holy or unholy; 3) what all covenants will be founded upon and before whom they'll be witnessed; 4) the path and means to reconciliation; and 5) what is lawful or unlawful (in thought, word, and deed), top to bottom, in a culture.

I know this subject may seem a little thick or lofty, but it really will repay our attention. Successful interpretation of modern trends depends upon it. We can begin by understanding that sacredness admits of orders. First order sacredness — The Sacred — is the source of all other sacredness. It is that in terms of which set-apartness exists. (Set-apartness, after all, is a from/to matter: nothing in creation could be sacred without a from/to.) The Sacred in a society is that to which its origin (life) and its salvation (health, wholeness, well-being) is attributed. To whom or to what does a society owe its existence and/or hope? That person or thing is the source of all that can, in turn, be regarded as sacred. The Sacred is the untouchable — inviolable — foundation stone which, if moved, will topple the whole. Second and third order (and so on) sacredness will be defined, necessarily, by respective proximity to the person or thing seen at the center: that is most sacred which is most evidently and officially consecrated to The Sacred, reserved for holy use by The Sacred, in covenant with The Sacred, reconciled to (and/or employed in bringing reconciliation with) The Sacred, and lawful, as defined by The Sacred.

Society and the Sacred
Every society holds something sacred. The variation occurs in what is held sacred, and in how evident or hidden that "sacred" is. Our society pretends to "secularization," but it guards its sacred every bit as much as King Aeetes of Colchis sought to guard the Golden Fleece. In contrast with our pretense of being beyond sacredness, the true and the living God was The Sacred in Israel of old, and He made that clear everywhere one turned! God suffused Israel with sacredness. He so organized their society around this idea that an Israelite could have no consciousness at all apart from consciousness of the sacred. God Himself was the ultimate "Set-apart One." This very One, to Whom they owed their creation (Ex. 20:8-11) and their redemption (Dt. 5:6,15), came down to dwell in their midst (Ex. 40). From this sacredness, all other sacredness flowed; hence the repetition, "Be holy, for I am holy."

From His manifestation in the Holy of Holies, sacredness radiated outward, encompassing the commonwealth. It reached in a special way to the High Priest, for he alone had access into the most sacred place once each year. It reached to the other priests, to the Levites, to the furniture and the appointments of the Tabernacle. And it reached to the rulers, to the prophets, and to all the covenanted people of Israel, encompassing as sacred even their bodies. "You are the children of the Lord your God. Do not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead. You are a people holy to the Lord your God. Out of all the peoples on the face of the earth, the Lord has chosen you to be his treasured possession" (Dt. 14:2). Sacredness radiated from center to periphery. The self-consciousness of their sacredness was inescapable.

Guarding the Sacred
And this sacredness was guarded at several levels. Blaspheming "The Name" (Lev. 24:11-16) was punishable by death: such insolence was a lashing out at the core of the culture, The Sacred. Striking a parent, the first administrator of God's sacred covenant — and the immediate source of the child's life and health — was also a transgression calling for death. It overturned the order. Trampling the sacred day, entering into the presence of The Sacred without warrant (Lev. 10; Nu. 3:10; 38; 2 Sam. 6:6), seeing The Sacred (Ex. 33:20), were all acts of revolution. Using the formula of sacred incense, or burning such incense in non-sacred use (Ex. 30:32f.; Num. 16:40) required that violators lose their place in the sacred community. As we said, God suffused Israel with the consciousness of sacredness. That sacredness was to be regarded as inviolable, for violable sacredness is a contradiction in terms, an utter oxymoron.

Move ahead 1700 years for our lesson. Antiochus IV ruled (175-164 B.C.) over that quarter of Alexander's empire which fell to the Seleucids. It included Judea, land of our Fathers. Antiochus called himself Epiphanes ("illustrious"), but was nicknamed Epimanes ("madman"). We learn much about him and his efforts to eradicate the covenant from the apocryphal books, 1 and 2 Maccabees. We also learn that the covenant was not dormant between the time of Malachi and the time of John the Baptist: it was alive and well, backed up by Almighty God. Reformed people would do well to accept the invitation to the apocrypha extended by the Belgic Confession, which counsels that we may "read and take instruction from" intertestamental books, 1 and 2 Maccabees being among those specifically named. Yet we do not. Though events described in the Maccabees were prophesied by Daniel (11:21-35), honored by our Lord (Jn. 10:22), and memorialized in the Book of Hebrews (11:32-38), relatively few Christians are aware of the covenantally significant history recorded in these important albeit non-inspired books. More's the pity, for they have a screaming relevance in our day. They describe the strategy of cultural revolutions: honor the new sacred and desecrate the old. Both are necessary if a cultural revolution is to occur.

Desirous of Hellenic uniformity, and irked by the religious non-conformity of the Jews in Judea, Antiochus conducted a war aimed at their distinguishing marks. He sent troops to Jerusalem in 167 BC and slaughtered many: the initial assault was on a Sabbath. He forbade the administration of the initiatory mark of the sacred covenant: circumcision. He compelled all, under threat of death, "to depart from the laws of their fathers and to cease living by the laws of God." Before Israel could be expected to honor the new sacred, the old had to be de-sacred-ed, i.e., desecrated. Here is a summary of the desecration, from 1 Maccabees 1 and 2 Maccabees 6; it climaxed in the "sacrifice" of a pig upon the sacred altar in the Temple:

41Then the king wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, 42and that all should give up their particular customs. 43All the Gentiles accepted the command of the king. Many even from Israel gladly adopted his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the sabbath. 44And the king sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the towns of Judah; he directed them to follow customs strange to the land, 45to forbid burnt offerings and sacrifices and drink offerings in the sanctuary, to profane sabbaths and festivals, 46to defile the sanctuary and the priests, 47to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and other unclean animals, 48and to leave their sons uncircumcised. They were to make themselves abominable by everything unclean and profane, 49so that they would forget the law and change all the ordinances. 50He added, "And whoever does not obey the command of the king shall die."
54Now on the fifteenth day of Chislev, in the one hundred forty-fifth year [i.e., 167 BC], they erected a desolating sacrilege on the altar of burnt offering. They also built altars in the surrounding towns of Judah, 55and offered incense at the doors of the houses and in the streets. 56The books of the law that they found they tore to pieces and burned with fire. 57Anyone found possessing the book of the covenant, or anyone who adhered to the law, was condemned to death by decree of the king. 58They kept using violence against Israel, against those who were found month after month in the towns. 59On the twenty-fifth day of the month they offered [a pig] on the altar that was on top of the altar of burnt offering. 60According to the decree, they put to death the women who had their children circumcised, 61and their families and those who circumcised them; and they hung the infants from their mothers' necks.
3Harsh and utterly grievous was the onslaught of evil. 4For the temple was filled with debauchery and reveling by the Gentiles, who dallied with prostitutes and had intercourse with women within the sacred precincts, and besides brought in things for sacrifice that were unfit. 5The altar was covered with abominable offerings that were forbidden by the laws. 6People could neither keep the Sabbath, nor observe the festivals of their ancestors, nor so much as confess themselves to be Jews.

Careful consideration of the war waged by Antiochus will shed light on our current struggles: we are engaged in religious warfare. The God of the Bible has been officially and unceremoniously removed as The Sacred and all are being required to re-order their lives around the new center. Our history, our laws, our logos has been reworked to omit references to God. Our children are taught that they owe their existence to Evolution (a "what," not a "Who"), and their health to Egalitarianism: meet Castor and Pollux, the twin gods, the new, inviolable Sacred of the New Order. Those who will not structure their lives around the new Sacred are punished by being pushed to the periphery, soon to be placed outside the camp altogether.

The Sacred in any culture cannot abide competitors. Antiochus knew that, and so do humanists. This is why we are witnessing an incessant assault upon the old Sacred, and upon all that was once called sacred for being in harmony with it. Children are taught to desecrate their bodies, to pierce and dye them. They are taught to desecrate sex, to desecrate marriage, to desecrate family, to desecrate authority, to desecrate language, to desecrate music, to desecrate painting, film, sculpture, and books. Everything is being brought into the service of the new Sacred. Any remnant of the old Sacred that peeks through must be stamped out or defiled to be made fit for the New Order. This is accomplished, in part, through a very public and unrelenting attack on symbols of the Old Order. The Last Supper must be repainted in the service of debauchery. The Virgin Miriam must be put on public display adorned by elephant dung and pornographic images. Clergymen must be publicly ridiculed, but homosexuals may not be (one may not even discuss whether homosexuality is a choice). The Federal government will subsidize "art" which immerses a crucifix in urine, but it will forbid sex-ed which insists on abstinence. These are religious decisions made in terms of the Sacred. Lichtenberg observed correctly, "With most people disbelief in a thing is founded on a blind belief in some other thing." The only use for the old Sacred in the New Order is as a source of amusement. The major media are the new arena for entertaining the masses by defiling those who cling to the Old Order. Even the Boy Scouts(!) must be whipped into conformity or die. Make no mistake: they are a target because they are a symbol. Symbols are condensed summaries of beliefs or convictions. Desecrating one potent symbol is more valuable than slaughtering ten thousand followers. That's why "the king of Aram had ordered his thirty-two chariot commanders, 'Do not fight with anyone, small or great, except the king of Israel.'" Go for the symbol: All that is included in it will falter. The strategy of Antiochus.

  • Steve M. Schlissel

Steve Schlissel has served as pastor of Messiah's Congregation in Brooklyn, New York, since 1979. Born and raised in New York City, Schlissel became a Christian by reading the Bible. He and Jeanne homeschooled their five children  and also helped raise several foster children (mostly Vietnamese). In 2003, they adopted Anna (who was born in Hong Kong in 1988, but is now a U.S. citizen). They have eight foster grandchildren and fourteen "natural" grandchildren.

More by Steve M. Schlissel