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An Altar in the Heart

An Altar in the Heart


The psalm appointed for this Sunday, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple,  is Psalm 84, which contains some of my favorite images of safety and security in all of scripture:


How lovely is your dwelling place,

    Lord of heavenly forces!

My very being longs, even yearns,

   for the Lord’s courtyards. 

My heart and my body

   will rejoice out loud to the living God!

Yes, the sparrow too has found a home there;

   the swallow has found herself a nest

   where she can lay her young beside your altars, 

   Lord of heavenly forces, my king, my God!

Those who live in your house are truly happy;

   they praise you constantly.


A couple of Sundays ago, one of the children at our church toddled up behind the altar while we were beginning the Great Thanksgiving, and fearful I might not see her otherwise, I picked her up and held her in my arms as we sang the Sanctus. As she closed her eyes to the ancient hymn, I marveled at how safe and secure she felt in the chancel, how she had found her a home just as those wee birds in the psalm have done.


I love the beautiful image of innocent creatures, sparrows and swallows that could fit within the palm of one hand, finding their homes within God’s courtyard and alongside God’s altar. The utter transformation of the holy temple of God described here becomes even more vivid when we consider that in earlier biblical testimony, birds were more likely to be sacrificed near that altar than find their home there. But now we are reminded that the other meaning of sacrifice is the making of something to be holy, sublime, to lift our hearts and minds to the dream of union with the transcendent God.


And yet, as I have studied this psalm, I have learned through study that the word translated as “lovely,” yedidot, is never used to refer to inanimate objects but rather is elsewhere translated as referring to people as beloved. It’s used to describe someone so lovely as to inspire not just longing but the honey-sweet promise of hope and worship fulfilled under the loving gaze of our God and Creator, drawing from us a prayer of praise, gratitude, abundance, ease, and security. I remember that even as we long for our oneness with God, God too longs for us, and reminds us that we are both beloved, and safe. 


Merciful God, we give thanks for your love,
for You have searched us out and known us,
and drawn us to your breast
with the warmth and safekeeping of your mighty wing.

It is here,

in the lea of your mercy and love,

that we invite you to dwell within us,

our longing and hope

Accept our prayers and praises, O Holy One,
for we are your children,
fledglings in wisdom and compassion:
we turn our faces to you in hope and assurance.

May we gather together in love
within the mighty branches of your truth and grace,
and make our home before your alabaster altar
like a sparrow building her nest in safety.

May we extol the beauty of your works, Lord,
greeting each moment with joyful melody,
swooping and trilling our praise
within your cathedral of creation.

Give us wings of faith, Blessed Savior,
to lift our thoughts and desires always to You, Almighty One,
that we may seek Your will with joy
through sunshine or storm,
knowing You are ever beside us as we pray.



The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire is a retired teacher and a priest in the Diocese of Missouri. She is priest-in-charge of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO.  She posts daily prayers at her blog Abiding In Hope, and collects spiritual writings and images at Poems, Psalms, and Prayers.



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