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In the 1831 novel of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” by Victor Hugo, La Esmerelda has been sentenced by the king’s court to be hung for the murder of the man she loves. She confessed to a crime she did not actually commit; the then ex-priest Frollo committed the crime. It’s complicated, read the novel. As she is about to be executed Quasimodo, the hunchback, swings down from the Note Dame cathedral and carries her back crying out “Sanctuary, Sanctuary.”
The tradition of Papal States, the Holy See, and eventually the Vatican was that these were independent states or countries of the Catholic Church. They were free from the laws and jurisdictions of the countries surrounding them; they were solely governed by the church. Stemming from this, cathedrals throughout Europe were held independent of the secular governments in which they resided. The cathedrals were governed by the rule of God and the Church, not the rule of lords, kings, and emperors.
Persons who were in trouble by the region’s statutes could take refuge, or “sanctuary,” in the cathedral and be beyond the grasp of the local law, as Quasimodo did whisking La Esmerelda into the cathedral. As long as La Esmerelda stayed in the cathedral she was safe from execution.
Our term “sanctuary” for the building we worship in derives from the safe legal haven of the cathedrals in the past. Our sanctuaries are places we can go to worship or pray, places we can feel “protection” and “safety” from the threats and pressures of the outside world. Even though God is omnipresent, we come into sanctuaries to focus our undistracted attention on God and the Holy Spirit. For at least a time we can let go of the burdens we carry.
We look forward to these sanctuaries to be places of acceptance of us as who we are, not needing to raise the pretenses we often feel are necessary outside the church. We come into release the burdens we shouldn’t be carrying, to open our hands and hearts and minds to receive that which the Holy Spirit is desiring to place there. These are places of quiet and peace, the peace of Christ. Here we can relax and refresh, being reminded of the fact that we are always being held in the arms of God.
Or so we hope.
In Ephesians Paul writes to a church that he was with for three years. He writes this letter to uplift, to guide, and to counsel. The first three chapters speak theologically of Christ breaking down the walls that separate people, that we have been made alive in Christ, and that the gentiles are equal heirs of Christ. In the fourth chapter Paul turns practical. Urging us to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received,” to be humble, truthful, gentle, patient, and to bear with one another in love, peace and unity. We are to equip people for works of service so the body of Christ may be built up.
And in the last portion of chapter four he visits things we should “rid ourselves of,” falsehood, anger, stealing, unwholesome talk, bitterness, rage, slander, every form of malice, and to generally avoid “grieving the Holy Spirit of God.”
What are our sanctuaries filled with? Are they places of peace, uplifting, acceptance, and love for one another? Or do those seeking sanctuary encounter gossip, power plays, judgement, back biting, and criticism. Hopefully the former; hopefully our houses of worship are in fact sanctuaries. And hopefully that “life worthy of our calling” we live inside the walls extends beyond them as well.
Several years ago the Pew Research group did a survey asking people what adjectives came to mind when they heard the word “Christian.” Unfortunately the majority of the adjectives most frequently mentioned were not positive. Among the leading contenders were “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” and “cliquish.”
Brennan Manning, an American author and Franciscan priest, wrote 25 texts between 1970 and 2011. In “The Importance of Being Foolish: How to Think Like Jesus” (2006) he recounts what a 23 year old student doing graduate work wrote:
“To me a Christian is either a man who lives in Christ or a phony. You Christians do not appreciate that it is on this--the almost external testimony that you give of God-- that we judge you. You ought to radiate Christ. Your faith ought to flow out to us like a river of life. You ought to infect us with a love for him. It is then that God who was impossible becomes possible for the atheist and for those of us whose faith is wavering. We cannot help being struck, upset, and confused by a Christian who is truly Christ like. And we do not forgive him when he fails to be.”
May our sanctuaries be communities like Paul wrote of in Ephesians. And may we live our lives outside the church in a manner so that those whose lives are troubled, incomplete, or confused know that they can come inside the walls and find “sanctuary.”
The Rev. Scott Wipperman is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Helena. He enjoys nature, is a fixer-of-many-things and is truly enamored with Helena.
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