Many religions have a tradition of taking off their shoes when they enter holy places. Muslims do it. The Buddhists and the Sikhs do it. Jews and Christians have a history of it, but they rarely do it anymore. Exodus 3:5 states “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” (NIV) when Moses was stopped by the burning bush. Why isn’t it done today? I think that it is a valuable way to remind ourselves that we are standing on holy ground.
Whenever I approach the altar at church, I pause and bow. I know that all of church is sacred and blessed, but I also feel that some areas are more so. This table isn’t like the table I eat breakfast from. This is a table of sacrifice. This table is like the rock that Abraham was about to sacrifice his son Isaac on. This table is like the altar at the Temple in Jerusalem over 2000 years ago. This table represents the table at the Last Supper when Jesus taught his disciples a way to remember him and his sacrifice.
The altar, this table, this meeting place of Heaven and Earth, is different and sacred. It is set apart. Yet we are welcome to approach it and serve at it. All we have as a gesture to acknowledge this difference is a bow. We bow to remind ourselves of this sacrifice. Yet why don’t we take off our shoes? Surely some of it is cultural. Feet are considered dirty. Dirt is the opposite of sacred. We don’t want to mix those things up. But let’s think about this. If we wear our shoes outside, then take them off when we get inside a holy place, then we are taking off the dirt. Our feet, having been in our shoes, are clean.
Perhaps we don’t take our shoes off because it is seen as too casual. We want to remind ourselves to be proper when we are with our Creator. We wear nice clothes. We speak in hushed voices. Sometimes we cover our heads in reverence. “Barefoot” often equals “relaxed” – and we want to be awake and mindful when we are worshipping. Yet Christians are told to be like children when we approach God. What is more child-like then going barefoot? What is more innocent?
I went to Holy Cross Episcopal Church on December 9th, 2012 to lead a prayer-bracelet workshop. I attended the Communion service and was startled to see the priest, fully robed up in cassock and alb and chasuble, standing there barefoot as she read the Gospel. Then I noticed that her chalice bearer was also barefoot. During the Passing of the Peace I managed to get to the chalice bearer and ask if it was OK if I took off my shoes as well and she enthusiastically encouraged me to. I asked my husband if it was OK with him as well. It was something I wanted to do, but I wanted to make sure that it wouldn’t make anyone uncomfortable or feel weird. Once cleared – the shoes and socks came off, and I tucked them under my chair. I went up to take Communion barefoot. It felt freeing, and weird, and special. The concrete floor was cold. I felt that people were looking at me. I had a real sense of difference – this time of going up to the altar was not the same as all the other times.
I think this is good. I think it is important to find ways to make this very simple, repeated experience more meaningful. There is a chance of not paying attention to something if you do it all the time. There is a chance of not taking it seriously. Approaching the altar is already a very physical experience. In some denominations, communion comes to you. You sit in your pew, and a round metal tray with a hundred or so single-serving cups of grape juice get passed by you, along with a tray of small square bits of dry “bread”. To me, it is a very impersonal experience. I appreciate the value of getting up from where I’m sitting and going to take communion. It means it is something I choose to do. It is something that I actively seek and desire. By approaching the altar I feel that I’m moving closer to Christ.
Meaningful that this symbol is, it means more when I can do it barefoot. But I don’t want to offend people. I don’t want to freak them out. I don’t want to call attention to myself. So when I’m not serving at church as a chalice bearer or an acolyte, I have taken to wearing clogs. I slip off my shoes during the service and stand on the bare wooden floor. The sensation reminds me that I am in a different place. This is holy ground. This isn’t just something I do on Sunday morning. This is a conscious choice to be here, to be part of this Body, to be a living member.
There is a desire in many sanctuaries to awaken the senses to the specialness of God. This is part of what we mean when we say “corporate” worship. We use the body, with all its senses, to be reminded of God’s love for us. This is why some sanctuaries are heavily ornamented. The stained glass and the tapestries and the icons are reminders to our eyes that something different is going on here. They are a reminder that God is here among us. The incense calls to us as well, awakening our sense of smell. When we go into a friend’s house, we may smell supper cooking. We know that we are about to get a really nice meal. We know that we have been expected and prepared for. In the same way, God expects us and prepares for us, and welcomes us. I think it is also important for us to welcome and prepare for God. The Lakota leader Black Elk tells us that “The holy land is everywhere”. It isn’t just in a church or a temple or a mosque.
The Rev. Carolyn A. Coleman, Vicar of Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Murfreesboro says “ I go without shoes because God told Moses to take off his shoes when he was on the holy ground before the burning bush. The burning bush and the ground out of which it grows is holy because God created it, but more, the ground of suffering to which God called Moses to bring God’s people salvation was holy. That was the ground I believe God was talking about. So in the midst of community gathered, I take off my shoes because all our suffering as well as our joys and celebrations make for holy ground.”
One way I remind myself of this idea is to paint my toenails vibrant colors. When I’m taking my shower, I see them. When I’m taking yoga, I see them. This simple bit of color reminds me that something different is going on. It is to remind me that wherever I go, it is holy. It is to remind me that God made everything and everyone, and every person I meet is a child of God. Another way I remind myself is by wearing beaded bracelets. Every time I see my hands, I notice them. Like writing a note on my hand to remember to buy bread and milk, these bracelets remind me that I have chosen to love and serve God by loving and serving His people. They remind me of specific people who I am praying for. They remind me of specific causes and concerns as well. They remind me to call a friend who is grieving. They remind me to take soup over to a friend who is sick. They remind me to take a CPR class so I can help a stranger. They remind me to pray for my boss when she is driving me up the wall.
It doesn’t matter what you do to remind yourself that you, right where you are, are standing on holy ground. It just matters that you remember. Every day, in every moment, you are where God called you to be. Every moment you have a chance to make this world a little better. A smile, a gentle word, showing kindness to a stranger – all of these little things add up. You don’t have to work for a huge non-profit agency to make a difference. But you do need to remember, and then act out of love.