Many people know that the worship space of a church building is commonly referred to as ‘the sanctuary.’ Since the word sanctuary usually means “a place of refuge or safety” you might reasonably expect that the space got its name because people sought sanctuary there. Actually, it is the opposite: the practice was named after the place, rather than vice versa.
Our word sanctuary is derived from the Latin word sanctuarium. The first part comes from sancta, which means ‘holy things’ and the suffix arium was used to designate ‘a container for keeping something’ (e.g., an aquarium is a container filled with water). So the literal meaning of the word sanctuary is ‘a container for holy things.’ The concept of a place containing holiness goes back all the way to God’s instructions given to the children of Israel for building the tabernacle (the portable temple they carried with them in their desert wanderings). The inner part of the temple, screened from the view of the people was designated the ‘holy place’ and within that, covered with a veil was the ‘holy of holies’ within which resided the Ark of the Covenant, from which God spoke to Moses (Numbers 7:89). Thus, the temple was literally a place containing God’s holiness – a sanctuarium.
The idea of using the temple as a place of refuge is also based on the Old Testament. Exodus 21:12-14 describes how a person who accidentally killed another could seek refuge from retaliation by clinging to the altar (though if subsequently found guilty of murder, the normal penalty was exacted). We read in 1 Kings 1:50-51 how a man afraid of having offended King Solomon clung to the altar for safety while he appealed his case. So the ‘sanctuary’ (container of holiness) became a place where innocent people could take refuge from unjust reprisals. This practice continued in Medieval Christianity when people seeking refuge from a tyrannical king, for example, would try to get to the sanctuary of the altar in the local church or cathedral where they were presumably safe from summary execution (it didn’t always work that way, as illustrated by the murder of Thomas Becket at the altar of Canterbury Cathedral in 1170). So there you have it: we have the word ‘sanctuary’ as meaning a place of refuge because innocent people in danger of attack took refuge at the sanctuarium (holiness container) surrounding the altar. Today, of course, we use the word sanctuary to mean a whole variety of protected places (such as ‘bird sanctuaries’).
Liturgically speaking, it was only the area immediately around the altar that was traditionally referred to as ‘the sanctuary’ – the same region also called the chancel that is enclosed by a rail in many traditional churches. In the Orthodox Catholic tradition, this area is surrounded by an actual wall and is entered only by the Priest. Though our Lutheran tradition is different, our worship leaders do customarily bow when entering this area as a sign of reverence. However, as you may have noticed, it is the common practice of Lutherans (and others) to speak of the entire worship space as the ‘sanctuary.’ That is, not only the chancel space immediately around the altar, but also the nave where the worshippers sit. Why is that?
Isn’t it also ironic that the altar was used as the place of refuge to prevent the shedding of innocent blood, when it originated in the Old Testament as the bloody place where innocent creatures were offered as sacrifices? This still echoes in our Christian practice when we receive the body and blood of our sinless Savior in the ‘sacrament of the altar’ (holy communion). To put it quite plainly, we Christians come to the altar not as innocent victims falsely accused, but as guilty sinners seeking refuge in the blood of the innocent Lamb of God.
And this also relates to why we also speak of the entire place of worship as the ‘sanctuary.’ You see, when God’s people are gathered to Him in Word and Sacrament the whole room is indeed a ‘container of holiness.’ – the holiness of forgiven people. For as we are assured:
“… you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:11)