- Last Updated on 04:13 PM 05/02/13
- BY DR. RUSSELL LEE
The English word sanctuary comes from the Latin word sanctuarium, meaning a sacred place. The word sanctity, as in sanctity of life, is from the same root, as well as the word saint.
The ancient Greeks built sanctuaries in natural spots like hills, mountains, caves or man-made structures. They believed, as Christians do in a different sense, that the sanctuary was an intermediate zone between the realm of humanity and the divine.
Many times these were placed on the borders of Greek cities or settlements. A runaway slave or even a disgraced politician could take refuge there.
The world uses the word sanctuary as a place that is set apart from danger or hardship. When a gunfighter or even a policeman is chasing a bad guy, they usually stop at the doors of the church out of respect for the institution.
For centuries, churches were built on holy spots where a miracle or martyrdom had taken place. They were often built over where a holy person, or saint, was buried. Churches, or the sanctuaries within, were said to be made holy by what had happened there.
When pilgrims walk through St. Peter’s Basilica, the church at the Vatican in Rome, they walk over the catacombs where the bones of St. Peter the Apostle and many others have been placed. Sanctuary and saint close together.
In modern times, the Roman Catholic Church has continued this custom by placing a box, or sepulchre, in their church which contain the bones or a relic of a saint. A piece of cloth, jewelry or other item may be inside.
It would be interesting to have a conversation with our Catholic brothers and sisters to see if this is indeed the case for their churches. Most of their churches seem to be named after a saint.
Sanctuary is the word we often use to describe the space in which we worship God. Churches have sanctuaries. Today some might call it the auditorium, the worship space. It might be called a multi-purpose room when churches use the same space as a fellowship hall, sanctuary, or gymnasium.
To reach back a paragraph or two, we could look again at our church, or sanctuary, to see if they really are being made holy by what happens there. Too often we depend on the history of our place of worship to justify that we gather in a sanctuary of God.
The God of the Bible is more interested in walking with his people on a daily basis. He desires to reveal himself in the here and now. He waits to do things which will restore life, to perform miracles that lift up the name of Jesus Christ as Savior.
He may even be saying to the people in sanctuaries across the world, “What have you done for me lately?” Where are the sanctuaries which empower the weak, speak of the divine and find miracles in the midst of committed disciples?
How does that happen? Perhaps we should look at how God intends to expand the sanctuary to include more places than we ever thought possible, or more people that we could ever imagine.
Paul writes, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own.” ~ 1 Cor: 6:19
What? Yes, we are indeed temples, or sanctuaries (same word) of God as his people.
God lives in us, and it is he who makes us holy. We are portable and ever-changing sanctuaries in whom God dwells and moves.
If we take the history of sanctuary and pray for God to fill our churches with activities which center on the presence and indwelling of God himself, we will find that our church is quite a different place. Instead of depending on what happened there a long time ago, having to search our memories for days of yore when God really did things, they happen now.
And when we realize that God sends us out as mini-sanctuaries, being shot out of submarine torpedo tubes, or dropped from the sky under holy parachutes as the army of God to save the world, we will have found just a small part of our purpose under heaven.
Too often the church is a sanctuary from reality, a place to escape from the world and do nothing. To be a place where heaven and earth are not far apart, it has to be something quite different.
Little sanctuaries going to the big sanctuary will experience a “coming home” of sorts as God’s presence transforms both locations, us, and the place we worship.
Then, when we go out of the sanctuary, we are little sanctuaries moving about, for God is in us. We depart to partner with God to create more sanctuaries, as people come to realize that they are indeed God’s temple in which the Holy Spirit dwells.
Sanctuary. A word with a rich history, and a concept to change history.
Where will you be this Sunday? Where are you today?