Safe Refuge and Rock
We can still find ‘fortified churches’ all over Europe, and even in the UK there are some along the English-Scottish and English-Welsh borders, in fact some traditional church buildings remind me of medieval castles.
Fortified churches are ancient beautiful pre-reformation churches with strong and very high defensive walls. In the past the citizens could find refuge there in times of external threats such as invading armies from neighbouring countries or lawless marauding hordes of robber knights. Today these churches are still havens of peace and tranquillity, often lovingly tended and kept up by elderly members of their congregations.
These churches remind me of an ancient Judeo-Christian tradition of regarding God himself as a safe stronghold. This is reflected in the Psalms (especially Psalms 71 and 31): “In you O Lord do I seek refuge; let me never be put to shame… Be for me a stronghold to which I may ever resort; send out to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress”.
In the presence of God we find refuge especially in times of trouble and persecution, hence the meaning of the word ‘sanctuary’ with all its connotations. At times this has become a metaphor for the nature of faith itself, such as the mysterious New Testament confession ‘Lord I believe, help thou mine unbelief’ (Mark 9, 24), where faith itself is being regarded as a safe place from which to reflect and in which to seek depth of faith.
At other times and in other situations this ‘safe refuge and rock’ tradition has given rise to churches and church communities becoming a sanctuary and even a place of asylum for those fleeing from persecution, to give them time and space to reflect and consider their situation without the relentless pressure of having to flee. ‘A safe stronghold our God still is’ is the first line of a hymn (in our hymn books 366) where Martin Luther reflects this tradition.
4 March 2018