Today’s second reading, taken from the Letter to the Hebrews, says, “Christ did not enter into a sanctuary made by hands, a copy of the true one, but heaven itself, that he might now appear before God on our behalf.” (Hb 9:24) Whenever I read this passage from the Letter to the Hebrews, I am reminded of a brief controversy that erupted in the diocese about forty years ago.
At some point in the 1980’s, the federal government issued new laws regarding access to public buildings for people with disabilities. Those new guidelines included a mandate that churches provide handicapped and disabled access to the sanctuaries in church buildings.
In our diocesan offices, those new mandates were read and assessed by a few people who had little knowledge of the federal government and its workings. The immediate result was that a notice was sent to all parishes requiring immediate construction of access ramps to the Sanctuary in the parish’s principal worship space. A few of us in parishes noticed immediately that the federal mandate had been misunderstood by the chancery staff.
In many Protestant religions, the word “sanctuary” refers to the entire interior of a Sunday worship space. In Catholicism, the word “Sanctuary” refers to the relatively small area that contains the Altar and the Ambo. The larger area in a Catholic church, where the congregational seating is located, is called a Nave. The distinction between a Sanctuary and a Nave in a Catholic church is based on the use of the word “sanctuary” in the Scriptures. Today’s second reading is an example of the scriptural meaning of the word.
When the Letter to the Hebrews refers to “a sanctuary not made with hands,” it is comparing the innermost part of the Temple in Jerusalem with God’s eternal presence in heavenly realms. The sanctuary in the Jerusalem Temple was considered to be God’s dwelling among the People; metaphorically, it was an extension of the eternal sanctuary in the heavens that was God’s eternal abode. In Catholicism, we use the word “sanctuary” in a way similar to its meaning in ancient Hebrew religion. A Sanctuary in a Catholic Church is the area in a church building where God’s People encounter God’s presence in the Word of Scripture and in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. The Sanctuary is a sacred place, but not the only sacred place in a Catholic church building. The Nave, too, is sacred because it is the place where God’s People offer appropriate worship to God.
When those federal regulations were published in the 1980’s, the chancery staff did not realize that the federal document was using the Protestant definition of the word “sanctuary.” There was no need for handicapped access to the Sanctuaries of our churches, only to the Naves of our churches. The intent of the federal regulation was to allow all people to participate in worship services; this has always been a core value in Catholicism.
There is an old saying, “Put two Catholics together and you’ll get three opinions about anything.” The truthfulness of this saying is demonstrated in the diversity of opinion among Catholics about the meaning of Sunday Mass. For some Catholics, the Mass is a burdensome obligation similar to paying taxes or performing jury duty. For others, Mass is very old-fashioned vending machine that dispenses religious goods and services – but functions too slowly. Some Catholics attend Mass as an unexamined habit like taking out the garbage every Monday morning; others attend Mass in response to fears about their mortality.
These above are only a few of the varied opinions about Sunday Mass. If one was to look at the language that Catholic worship uses, a very different understanding of Sunday Mass emerges. Let’s look at just one of the words that is used in Catholic worship: Sanctuary.
In ancient Hebrew religion, the sanctuary of the Temple was a physical reminder of God’s enduring presence with God’s People. In a Catholic Church, the Sanctuary is the place where the Scriptures are read and explained, and where the Eucharist is celebrated; these are our physical (sacramental) memorials of God’s enduring presence. The Sanctuary in a Catholic church is also a place where sacrifice is offered to God; it is not, however, the only place where sacrifice is offered. The Nave in a Catholic church is also a place of sacrifice.
During Sunday Liturgy, the Scripture readings proclaim the meaning of Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross. The celebration of Eucharist is a memorial of Jesus’ sacrifice; this sacramental memorial allows God’s People to partake in God’s mercy poured out in Jesus’ sacrificial death. One further sacrifice occurs during the celebration of Sunday Liturgy: God’s People offer God a sacrifice of praise. Rather than being a burden, or a consumer event, or a way to cope with one’s fears, Sunday Liturgy is a congregation’s thanksgiving to God for God’s graciousness.
I never tire of thanking friends, and even strangers, for their kindness. I would guess that most people have the same experience. Sunday Liturgy is a congregation’s opportunity to thank God for God’s loving kindness made manifest in the baptismal covenant. Of the many reasons that one might have for attending Sunday Liturgy, this is the only valid reason. Any motivation other than the desire to thank God in the assembly of God’s People amounts to a misunderstanding of the sort made by those diocesan employees who misunderstood the meaning of the federal regulations intended to promote access to churches for all people.
When we attend Sunday Liturgy, we enter a sanctuary made by human hands. When we do so, we know that we enter the eternal sanctuary of God’s presence, as well. There is only one motivation that is sufficient to transport our hearts and minds to God’s presence: the desire to give God a sacrifice of praise in gratitude for God’s loving kindness. Today, in the sacred dwelling where God’s People encounter God’s presence, there is room for every faithful worshiper but there is no room for mistakes or misunderstandings. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews instructs God’s People to “approach with a sincere heart and in absolute trust, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water. Let us hold unwaveringly to our confession that gives us hope for he who made the promise is trustworthy.” (Hb 10:22-23) Our attendance to God’s saving presence in the Liturgy today is for a single purpose: to be grateful and to offer God a sacrifice of praise.