This article was published in the September edition of the First Christian Church Courier newsletter.
How do we make sense of clapping? What does it mean?
In the months since this series began, I have received deeply considered feedback and reflection on the meaning and purpose of clapping, especially in the context of worship. One letter I received suggested that clapping “indicates the joyous participation of the congregation in the litany of the church.” Another conversation partner construed clapping (insofar as it is applause for a song/performance) as a distraction from the reverent liturgical movement that climaxes at the communion table. These are richly theological portrayals of the meaning of clapping.
I would like to add my own theological reflection to the mix. But in order to do so I need to comment on an assumption that often-times runs unnoticed. It is the assumption that there is a neat and tidy divide between the secular and the sacred.
Without getting too far ahead of ourselves, it is helpful to note that, historically speaking, the opposite of sacred is not secular but profane. Secular comes from Latin saeculum, a century or age. It is a term related to time, namely ordinary time. What we currently experience in our everyday lives, the marching on of one event after another, is the original meaning of secular. The opposite of secular is a higher time, one which we commonly consider “eternal”. The distinctions better look like this: secular/eternal, on the one hand, and, on the other, sacred/profane.
If secular is a temporal term, sacred is more spatial. Sacred means set apart or holy. It is that object, person or what-have-you that is considered close to God. That which is not set apart is profane. These spatial terms are commonly linked to religious sites of worship: the sacred is where God dwells. Historically, to be labeled pro fano (pro-fane) meant one was not admitted into the temple (lit. “in front of the temple”).
Where am I going with all this? I’m going into some tricky theological territory, and I think it’s helpful to have some markers for the terrain ahead. I hope you’ll stick with me for the journey.
The question we’ve been entertaining, I think, stands or falls on whether or not clapping is construed as a sacred/reverent activity or a profane/irreverent one. Can we move reverentially toward the communion table while we clap? Can we clap and thereby actually remove ourselves from the litany of the church? More forcefully, is clapping always a sacred act or is it a profane one? I want to suggest that clapping can be, but is not necessarily, a profoundly sacred act, one that draws us close to God.
In order to say more, I need to tell you a story—one you are likely very familiar with. It’s the story of a child, born in very profane conditions, who was anything but “far from God.” It is the story of a man who suffered a profoundly profane torture and yet in so doing showed us the very character of God. It is the story of one whose death “tore the veil” that neatly divided the profane world from the sacred Holy of Holies. It is the story of scarred flesh raised from the dead—the very Glory of God. It is a story that shatters the divide between “the sacred” and “the profane” and, yes, sheds light on clapping.