The Sacred and The Profane: The Importance of Narrative, Context, and Ritual

This week the Christian world enters the advent season and, as a religious body, for the next 25 days we will be telling ancient stories about the coming of Jesus. There is a nearly equally powerful cultural force that will also be marking the season as we visit Santa, watch 1960s claymation movie classics, and sing (sometimes embarrassingly bad) Holiday songs. I was a non-believer until my mid-20s and a Christian since but what I always find interesting in both phases of my life this time of year has always felt special. This has been on my mind since Thanksgiving when my kids and I were watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. We were all excited as we began unconsciously ticking off the little indicators that the the Holidays were beginning; 

  • sleeping in
  • my wife making Sweet Potato Casserole
  • Santa was on his float
  • I took the boys outside to put up Christmas lights

This vague feeling struck me again this “Communion Sunday”. If you are unfamiliar with this sacrament it is the commandment that Jesus gave at the Last Supper.


19 And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 
20 In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you

Luke 22:19-20, NIV

and


“And when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

First Corinthians 11:24


In my Presbyterian church we have communion on the 1st of every month. The Pastor generally follows the usual worship service (although tries to shorten the sermon) but after the typical sermon the emotion of the service shifts almost unconsciously but perceptibly as the Pastor comes down from the pulpit and begins the communion service with prayer. He turns to the meal which is simply a bite of bread and a thimble full of grape juice (1) and quotes the scripture readings above. The servers pass out the food (2) and the church (3) shares in a remembrance of the Last Supper. The Pastor then ends the Communion service with a Benediction Prayer and, again, the atmosphere perceptibly changes. 

What has happened!? This is the same people, sitting in the same pews, listening to the same Pastor – and yet something changed. The church was taken out of the normality of the day and placed somewhere else; somewhere sacred. I was made acutely aware of this transformation this week when I was asked to leave the sanctuary and take the communion meal to the members volunteering with the children. As I carried the bread and juice to the volunteers I realized that it felt weird leaving that space that was created in the sanctuary. After reflecting on it, the awkwardness came from doing something that was among the sacred within a sphere that was profane. We tend to use “profane” now as meaning base or gross and the most obvious example is “profane” 4-letter word language. In religious vocabulary though profane simply means common or ordinary; aka, not sacred. 

This is a long story but I tell it for 2 reasons. The first is that I am trying to understand what were the mechanics that went into preparing the way for the sacred space to be created. The second is that I am curious how those mechanics can be  used to create a similar shift into the classroom. Now, I am not suggesting we attempt to create a sacred space in a Biblical sense but rather how can we create a classroom space that rises above the profane; what does that mean and how can it be achieved? I feel all to often we have classes that are uninspired and wallowing in search of a purpose.

Here are the three mechanics that I can identify in the creation of the sacred space – and they have nothing to do with a physical location.

  • Narrative
  • Context
  • Ritual

Narrative – Tell the story that explains importance

The process of giving something a story. There are plenty of Biblical stories involving meals and the table is a common place of worship but only one mealtime story (4) that I can think of one that transcends the common and rises to the sacred. The communion would be just a bit of bread and juice if not for the story that leads to the meal. The prayer reminding the church of the events leading to the Last Supper is God’s instrument for opening the door raising the profane food to that of a sacred meal. 

Providing a meaningful story for classroom work is incredibly important but is also pretty difficult. The narrative can be a simple theme or it can be an intricate story line but explaining to students the  importance of their work through story is important. Humanity seems wired to look for story, to find patterns, to go on the Hero’s Journey, and to overcome enemies and obstacles. Give the students an obstacle or an enemy to overcome through storytelling. 

Context – What’s the Why?

It is the Last in the Last Supper that literally connects the congregation to the divine and puts the story into context. Jesus is about to be turned over to the Romans and He knows that he is about to suffer crucifixion. He is telling his followers what is about to happen and how to carry on. It is only in the context of death and resurrection that the story makes any sense. This context tells the church “why” we are eating the meal and “how” to come together as Christians once (and now that) Jesus has left and been resurrected. The context raises the stakes for the congregation and lets them know the meaning behind the choice being. This is not just some token crumb but a statement of faith and decision to be part of the community.

Of course, the classroom does not rise to this level of the sacred but students do need a reason to see beyond the mundane and profane of the daily classroom routine. This is the search for the eternal question “Why do I need to learn this?”. The profane answers to this question include it is on the test, it’s in the standards, or someday you’ll need it. The worst of course is “Because I said so”! The narrative does not need to be elaborate but the context needs to raise the stakes so that students need to know the importance of their decisions. Meaningful choices come with context.

Ritual – The signals and routines that indicate a transformed space.

Communion, at my church, does not start with the opening prayer; it starts with the Pastor walking down the stairs. I think this is an important ritual. He is literally coming down to the level of the church members and signaling a break in the typical service format. The Pastor then follows the same communion procedures to open the ceremony; prayers are spoken, the bread is broken, the juice is poured, the trays are dispersed and distributed by the servers. The Holy Spirit is present but the church recognizes His presence through the rituals of the ceremony. I believe this is why I felt so out of place leaving the created sacred space while I took the communion items to the other building. I was not present to take place in the rituals and had to recreate a mock version with the those with me outside of the main sanctuary. The ritual itself does not create the sacredness (that would be human centered ‘magic’ not God centered sacredness) but signals divine presence.

We all have little rituals and routines in the classroom. What I have been contemplating since this weekend is how do I create rituals and routines that open the door to the narrative and context that allow students’ experience to rise above the profane. What are the ways that I can signal to students the purpose of our community, the relevance of our content, and the importance of the skills they are developing? What are the ways that I can create a space that indicates we are in a special place?

Concluding Thoughts

Communion Sundays are full of narrative, context, and rituals that signal the creation of a sacred space but the mechanics of the ceremony can be found in other areas of life. While the mechanics don’t cause a divine presence (5) it does signal the presence. This schema can be applied elsewhere. I believe it is the reason that this time of year feels so special even within non-Christian circles. The secular signals of Santa and elves, Black Friday sales and snowflakes, and cookies and lights all tell us that something special is happening. These are not sacred but they rise above the everyday (or profane) experiences.

Similarly, Pinterest is littered with pictures of beautifully decorated classrooms filled with alternative seating options and thematic displays. The effort put into these physical spaces is great (6); however without the narrative, context, and rituals these spaces are hollow gestures that don’t raise the classroom beyond the profane.

There is already to much profanity in most students lives. Give them something that reaches above the basic and provides meaning and relevance to their lives. We may not be able to reach the sacred but we can strive to enter a higher plane.


  1. I have a great story about Wesley, my 8 year old, taking communion at an Episcopal church that uses actual wine instead of grape juice… But another time. 
  2. Theologically our denomination sees the bread and wine as a remembrance of Christ. The Bread is bread not a literal transformation into the Body; same with the wine. Other denominations may see this otherwise.
  3. “Church” means the people that form the community of believers, not just the building where they sometimes gather. 
  4. Well, you could also include the Passover meal if the Jewish tradition fits into your definition of Biblical.
  5. Again, it is the Holy Spirit that causes this not human actions. That would imply that people can tell God what to do and that just isn’t how it works.
  6. Yes, I recognize that these can also be incredibly expensive. Creating narrative, context, and rituals is mostly cheap monetarily. 
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