The Thin Red Line

The distinction between sacred and profane is said to be a universal religious structure, but it’s actually quite rare in the Hebrew Bible. Holy things are “profaned” with some frequency in the Scriptures (most often when tied to sabbath) but “profane” as a noun describing place or space is use only a few times.

Ezekiel famously condemns those priests who fail to make the proper distinction between the holy and profane (Eze. 22:26), and the imposing walls of his envisioned temple run between the clear-cut zones of holy and profane (42:20; 44:23).

In the Torah, there is only a single mention of such a distinction. In Leviticus 10, after the deaths of Nadab and Abihu God tells Aaron that as priest he is responsible to “make a distinction between the holy and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean, and so as to teach the sons of Israel” (Lev.10:10-11).

The interesting part is that this instruction follows immediately on the heels of the prohibition of wine and strong drink in the tent of meeting (v. 9). Abstinence from wine in the presence of the Lord is presented as the marker of the distinction between holy and profane, and this in the singular passage where the distinction is stated explicitly. According to Torah, that which makes the sacred sacred is the absence of wine. Communion with God has always been marked by a thin, red line.

This sheds considerable light on what’s happening at the Lord’s Table under the New Covenant. Every time Christians drink wine in God’s presence, we do so as a memorial to the end of the sacred-profane distinction. But is is not just a memorialization. The New Covenant meal is an effective sign; a sign in the biblical sense which performs something as well as points to something. An overflowing cup at the Table of the Lord powerfully symbolizes the dissolution of the superficial boundaries between God and his people. The Eucharist is a weekly re-enactment of the rending of the temple veil. Such barriers and boundaries are the garments of an older age, now folded up and taken away. That which once kept us out now serves to bring us near. In the sacraments the well-ripened promises of God are made flesh and dwell among us; promises which call us, as sons and daughters, into his immediate presence for a family meal. Words fitly spoken, bread duly broken; wine, water, welcome poured forth.

Consider the way the prophet Isaiah described the coming of Jesus to inaugurate the New Covenant:

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples; a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation” (Is. 25:6-9).

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