Sanctuary. The word filled my mind and tugged at me. It pursued me. I had just rung in 2005, and longed to create a quiet space following the frantic holiday season. I craved a place of order where I could sit and think unhindered — a place where I could clear my mind and feel at peace.
A natural “messy,” my first response was to clean my room — clear away all clutter. The pile of fashion magazines dating back more than a year had to go. I thought about installing crisp linen curtains and throw pillows for my floor-level window to create a pleasant spot of repose. Visions of Real Simple danced in my head as I pictured myself sitting there in endless hours of Bible study and meditation.
But as the word sanctuary continued to fill my mind, I wondered if changing my environment would reap the benefit I longed for: peace, tranquility and security. What was this sanctuary I craved?
Perhaps my desire for sanctuary began the day I watched the big screen version of Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events. The Baudelaire children, Violet, Klause and Sunny, are sent to live with their evil non-uncle Count Olaf after their parents’ untimely death in a house fire. Forced to serve the evil count by completing an endless list of difficult and disgusting tasks, the Baudelaire orphans begin to lose hope.
But late at night, locked up in the count’s dark, creepy attic, the resourceful siblings rig up a tent and light it with a headlamp. The narrator consoles that though in dire straights, the children have created a place of refuge — sanctuary.
Something inside me connected with that feeling of helplessness yearning for a place of refuge and protection. A place to get away from it all and know for certain everything’s going to be OK. I may not be a mistreated orphan, but I do feel battered and bruised by life. Relationships, job stress and financial worries combine to make me feel uncertain and alone. In those moments, I long for sanctuary.
I grew up attending a Baptist church where I heard the word sanctuary on a regular basis. “Don’t run in the sanctuary!” Dad would say, his eyebrows knit together in disapproval.
There was nothing spectacular about our sanctuary with its wooden pulpit and ancient piano. But I knew it was a place to be respected. It was the room where we worshiped God.
The full meaning of sanctuary goes far beyond my childhood understanding; it means “a consecrated place.” The Latin root sanctum expands on that: “holy, sacred, unbreakable.”
The word sanctuary appears 177 times in Scripture; all but seven references are in the Old Testament. Sanctuary refers first to the tabernacle, and later the temple.
God told Moses in Exodus 25:8, “Then have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them.” In Scripture sanctuary is the dwelling place of God and the meeting place of God and man.
Moses received detailed instructions regarding this dwelling place. Utterly sacred, the sanctuary came with a set of regulations for everything: How sacrifices were to be made; how worshipers should approach and even what garments those serving in the tabernacle should wear. Utmost reverence was required at all times.
The inner sanctuary — the most holy place — was where God’s physical presence dwelled. It was the place where Israel witnessed His power and glory and the place where they were confronted by His truth. The Psalmist, lamenting over the success of the unrighteous, said, “When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny” (Psalm 73:16-17).
This veiled chamber was so sacred that a priest could only enter it once a year to make an atonement sacrifice. Any violation of the rules regarding the inner sanctuary resulted in death.
The book of Isaiah foreshadows a coming change to the sanctuary. Speaking of the Messiah, Isaiah prophesies, “He will be a sanctuary.” The meeting place of God and man will no longer be a building but a person.
Jesus confirmed this when he referred to Himself as the temple, which He claimed He would raise in three days. When he died, the heavy veil that separated the inner sanctuary from the rest of the temple tore down the middle. At that moment, God’s dwelling place moved from the temple to the hearts of men who enter a relationship with Him through Jesus.
Hebrews repeats this amazing truth: That we have a hope that enters “the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf” (Hebrews 6:19). The earthly sanctuary has been replaced in the person of Jesus Christ, who offers us access to the sacred space of God’s very presence. I can choose to bring my struggles, worries and heartaches to Him daily, and, in those precious moments, find sanctuary.
This understanding is far loftier than the definition that sparked my desire for sanctuary at the beginning of this year. The concept I encountered in the tale of the Baudelaire orphans, “a place of refuge and protection,” is less than I desire. And yet the two are linked.
The place of refuge and protection I crave is the sacred, unbreakable place that has been provided for me through Christ’s sacrifice — my future home with Him. When I mess up a friendship, rush through a hectic workweek or feel overwhelmed by financial burdens, I ache for that place of peace and security. I long for the day I’ll put this life behind me and dwell with my God forever.
As great as that hope is, I tend to lose sight of it in the hustle bustle of day-to-day activities. Like the Baudelaire orphans, I must settle for a temporary sanctuary while I wait for the real thing. But I must also plan moments of solitude and find a quiet place where I can focus on God.
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I sit Indian-style on the floor surrounded by throw pillows. The start of the year is a fading memory. The room is quiet except for the ripple of linen in the summer night’s breeze. I snap shut the small leather book in my hands and close my eyes. This is a place of refuge. But the Lord is my sanctuary.
“I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever.” — Ezekiel 37:26
Copyright 2005 Suzanne Gosselin. All rights reserved.