In every Catholic church, there is a sacred space known as the sanctuary. It is a place where the primary actions of the Mass take place, where the priest conducts the sacred rituals and offers sacrifice to God on behalf of the congregation. The word “sanctuary” is derived from the Latin word “sanctus” which means holy, sacred, or set apart. In essence, the sanctuary is a place that is consecrated and dedicated to the worship of God.
The concept of a sanctuary dates back to ancient times, where it was believed that certain locations were imbued with spiritual power and significance. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the sanctuary was designed to mimic the holy of holies in the Jerusalem temple. It was the most sacred and holy place in the temple, where only the priests were allowed to enter and offer sacrifices to God.
The holy of holies was separated from the rest of the temple by a thick veil, which symbolized the separation between God and man. The actions of the priest were invisible to the rest of the people, who could only hear and sense the presence of God. In Byzantine churches, this concept is still carried out with an iconostasis, an entire wall that blocks the view of the sanctuary from the rest of the church.
In Roman Catholic churches, the use of the sanctuary veil gradually decreased over time. However, the altar rail remained as the last remaining remnant of this tradition in the West. The altar rail is a symbolic barrier that separates the sanctuary from the rest of the church, reminding us of the sacredness of the space and the importance of approaching it with reverence and awe.
The sanctuary is also distinguished by the presence of the tabernacle, a small box that contains the consecrated Eucharistic hosts. In most churches, the tabernacle is placed in the sanctuary as a reminder of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The presence of the tabernacle is indicated by a red lamp, which serves as a visual reminder of the presence of God.
In conclusion, the sanctuary is a holy and sacred place, reserved for a specific function and designed to facilitate our worship of God. It is a physical reminder of the spiritual realities that underlie our faith, and it serves as a place of encounter between God and His people. As we approach the sanctuary, may we do so with a spirit of reverence and humility, recognizing the sanctity of the space and the greatness of the God we worship.