Sacred Places

A sacred place is never empty.

-- Russian Proverb

Thirty years after his passing, Elvis Presley is not forgotten and, some would say, not even gone. Organizers estimated that 50,000 fans showed up at his Graceland home in 2007 to mark the 30th anniversary of his death with an all-night candlelight procession past the gravesite located on the grounds of his 14-acre Memphis estate. Other events during the annual Elvis Week observance included an Elvis outdoor movie and music festival hosted by NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., a fireworks display set to Elvis music, a giant Elvis merchandise expo and an Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest featuring winners of 26 preliminary Elvis impersonator competitions around the world.

As for not being gone, Elvis sightings have been a staple of tabloid journalism since a Kalamazoo, Michigan resident reported seeing him at a local Burger King in 1988. He has subsequently been spotted in various Wal-Mart outlets, in numerous bars and restaurants, and at a Cleveland Cavaliers basketball game, as well as at countless supermarkets, drug stores and malls. There have been sightings all over North America, Europe, Australia, even South Africa. Sometimes he is seen eating a banana-and-peanut-butter sandwich, known to be his favorite. The most popular theory is that Elvis faked his own death to escape the burdens of stardom, while other sightings suggest visitations from beyond the grave.

With its pilgrimages and processions, the Elvis phenomenon has taken on the trappings of a religious movement – not the least the many posthumous sightings of the departed cult figure. Graceland seems deliberately contrived to serve as a shrine, with its Meditation Gardens by the gravesite and even a chapel where you can book a wedding or burn a Memory Candle in honor of the King. Designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1991, Graceland is the second most visited private residence in the U.S. after the White House, with some 600,000 visitors per year. Weissmann Travel Reports has listed Graceland as the world’s top “devotional shrine,” ranking ahead of such popular cult destinations as Mao’s Tomb in Beijing, Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris and the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas.

Should these monuments to today’s pop stars and political leaders be discussed in the same breath as the sacred places of antiquity? Glamour and holiness are obviously not the same thing. And yet I suspect such distinctions were lost on the grieving throngs who arrived unbidden at Graceland on the first anniversary of Elvis’ death -- and who have been showing up in increasing numbers ever since -- to light candles in his memory. As much as we might be tempted to scorn such mawkish displays of ersatz religious devotion, there seems little outwardly to distinguish them from the genuine article.

Where does this impulse come from to associate some aspect of the divine with a particular place that is then call sacred? Long ago, that wily old patriarch Jacob awakened from a dream about a ladder to heaven and became frightened. "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it,” he cried. It didn’t seem to matter that he had dreamed the whole thing. "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." The stone on which he had rested his head now became an altar, and he poured oil on it for sacrifice. The place was renamed Bethel, meaning “house of God,” and it became a center of worship for the Israelites before the temple was built in Jerusalem.

Just as a bright light casts its surroundings into shadow, the sudden awareness that “God is in this place” may lead us to conclude he is not anywhere else. These incandescent moments become enshrined in memory and in other ways as well. In comparison, the light of day may seem like darkness. The danger is that revelation will forever blind us to the ordinary.

Another of those incandescent moments is related in a story found in three of the New Testament gospels. Jesus and three of his disciples go up a high mountain, and Jesus is suddenly transfigured before them. His face and garments shine with an otherworldly light, and he was seen talking with Moses and Elijah, both long departed this life. The apostle Peter proposes that they erect three booths to commemorate this miraculous event, one each for Moses, Elijah and Jesus. But Jesus strictly forbids them to tell anyone what happened on the mountaintop, knowing perhaps as his disciples do not that the iconic event of his life on earth will not be the Transfiguration but rather his crucifixion. In the end, it is not his divinity but his broken, bleeding humanity that brings light to the world.

The New Testament ends with John’s glorious vision of the New Jerusalem, but there is a curious note, mentioned only in passing. Amid all the resplendent sights of a new heaven and a new earth, John writes, “I saw no temple in the city.” This city made of gems and precious metals has no need of sun or moon because it shines with its own light. Yet, as John’s passing observation makes clear, there are no sacred places within it; indeed, if only we had eyes to see, we might discover there are no sacred places anywhere in God’s creation. The reason is this: there can be no sacred places if everything is.

Genesis 28:10-22
Matthew 17:1-13
Revelation 21:22

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