The Rev. Becky Zartman
Isaiah 25: 1-10
There are two distinct definitions of sanctuary. The first definition, and the original meaning, comes from Latin sanctuarium. An -arium is a container for something; sanctus means holy. Sanctuary simply means a place for the holy.
The second definition of sanctuary is a place that is safe. This definition only arose in the 1560s, and was a reflection of a legal practice. From the fourth to the seventeenth centuries in England, fugitives could find immunity within the sanctuary of a church. As long as the fugitive remained within the church, the fugitive remained beyond the reach of the law. Because of this legal practice, the word sanctuary began to mean any place of safety. Today we speak of bird or wildlife sanctuaries, places where wildlife is safe from human predation and destruction.
The idea of the place of holiness being the place of safety would seem strange to our biblical brothers and sisters. Moses would not call the God who manifests as thunder and lightning and flame on Mount Sinai safe. Job would not call the God who answers with anger out of the whirlwind safe. Isaiah would not call the God whose hem alone filled the throne room safe. Anyone who has encountered the extreme fierceness and otherness of our spiritual cousins, the angels, would not call holiness safe, because holiness is not safe. God is not safe, and to pretend otherwise is to domesticate the Creator of the Universe. We do not sign up for safety when we sign onto the grand project of the Kingdom of God.
And yet. Our sanctuaries, our places for the holy, are surely places of shelter and safety amid the wandering that is our life. We find our way to church in times of great change: when there is a birth, when a new family starts, when we profess our vocation, when we lose the people we love. So too we find our way to church in times of no change at all; that gentle humming of life as the world turns monotonously day by day, nothing much changing, everything seeming the same, when we wonder whether or not we’ve set out on the right path. We long for shelter from change, whether too much, or too little. But if we know where to look, we will find the shelter we need.
The companionship of fellow travelers on the journey shelters us, for when we can no longer find the words or the strength to pray, our companions hold us up and pray for us. When we lose our way in the thicket of life, our companions help us find our way forward. When we forget who we truly are, our companions remind us.
The liturgy itself shelters us, the same patterns unfolding, again and again, day by day, week by week, year by year. With the familiarity earned by time, scriptures and hymns and prayers become dear friends.
The buildings themselves shelter us, with their constancy and their well-worn kneelers and their pews baptized in tears, with the saints that look down on us in graciousness from their windows, with the resin from the smoke of our prayers, with the altars that have themselves taken on the act of remembrance and thanksgiving and sacrifice. Everything about and everything within these buildings we call churches is there to help us find God again and again.
We need sanctuaries as places of safety and holiness because we need a place to return. Because we are human, we will wander away from God, we always do. Some wander farther than others. But the people and the liturgy and the place – that is to say, the Church – is meant to be out there as an outpost in the wilderness, calling to us like a homing beacon, guiding us back to the presence of God, back to relationship, back to wholeness, back to shelter, back to our home, the sanctuary of God.
Questions for Meditation
The SSJE Rule notes that “God’s boundless welcome is something we already enjoy here and now in the Eucharist.” What parts of the liturgy feel to you like coming home?
Think about the pattern of your day: how you leave home and, especially, how you return. When you arrive home, how do you settle in? What do you set down or let go of?
God always welcomes us back. The Church – its liturgy and people – is an outpost in the wilderness, guiding us back to the presence of God, to relationship and to wholeness. How do you help welcome others to this refuge?
As humans, we need shelter to survive. Once our physical needs are met, we long for a different type of shelter. Where do you feel most at home?