For the better part of 500 years, the twin arches at the entrance to the monastic city of Glendalough denoted ‘sanctuary’: Once you reached this gateway, enemies were required to cease their pursuit.
Today, there’s precious little comfort to be found in the dry-set granite stones of the archways that guarded what once was a thriving center of spirituality and commerce. The English sacked the place in 1398, leaving much of the site in ruins.
I found myself recalling our recent visit to Glendalough (just outside Dublin, Ireland) as I reflected on today’s readings for the first week of Advent. The great prophet Isaiah seems to have had a place very much like it in mind when he wrote:
…the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills. All nations shall stream toward it; many peoples shall come and say: “Come, let us climb the LORD’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.”
A beautiful vision – telling of a place that could shelter the people of God from the sword and protect all their fondest aspirations. But in the end, impressive fortifications proved useless against a determined foe. Even the best-laid stonework ultimately provides no sanctuary at all.
Which seems to be along the lines of the message Jesus wants to pass on to his disciples in the Gospel reading we hear from Matthew:
So will it be also at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be out in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken, and one will be left. Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.
I notice how there’s a tendency for this – or any apocalyptic message – to stir up fear in my heart. And quickly emerging from that fear: A desire to build up fortifications. To dispose of threats, real or imagined.
But we miss something important about this season of Advent, it seems to me, if most of our spiritual energy is turned toward what we will do…what I will do…to prepare a sanctuary.
For is it not the point of Advent…to remind us that a Sanctuary has already been prepared?
And that our most important work is to ready our hearts…to make room for the Christ?
If we’re not careful, we can rush right past the most important words in today’s Gospel story.
…your Lord will come.
This promise is a great comfort indeed, in every circumstance of life. And so we are reminded during this holy season to pray, Marana tha! Come, Lord Jesus!
Let us pause now…to recall that we are in the presence of the Holy & Merciful One.