by Michael Raia
The following summary essay was prepared for an academic independent study on sacred architecture during masters coursework at the Liturgical Institute, July 2017.
"The Church desperately needs to reclaim an understanding of the church building as a Christian Temple."
Throughout the course of Church history, the edifices built for worship have borne a sacred meaning that is inseparable from the faith and mystery celebrated within. While emphasized and articulated in various ways by different cultures and in different ages, this meaning unfortunately seems to escape the comprehension of many Catholics living in a modern age that is largely starved for authentic symbolic mediation of the sacred. This deficiency should alarm us, as this system of signs and symbols upon which church design has traditionally depended is also requisite for a meaningful comprehension of the very mysteries that underlie the sacraments. Yet when it comes to church design, efforts to reclaim this understanding have been challenged by extremes – both dominated by the emotional pursuit of the symbolic. Nostalgic efforts to reclaim a lost legacy of magnificent churches constructed during a triumphal era of American Catholicism have yielded a somewhat unintelligible paragon on the side of tradition. On the other side, an older but still prevalent dismissal of a church building as simply a skin for the act of worship, a shelter for community gathering, or even a theater for dramatically reenacting the Lord’s Supper finds sympathy with America’s general suspicion of matter and discomfort with a sacramental worldview. These approaches do little to truly serve today’s Catholics. The Church desperately needs to reclaim her ancient understanding of the church building as a network of signs and symbols that sacramentalize the liturgy and the Body assembled – an understanding of the church building as a Christian Temple.
In the spirit of the country’s puritanical roots, the evangelical zeal of the mainstream practice of Christianity in the US remains a heavy influence in our thinking, even among Catholics. As a result, many are fairly comfortable emphasizing the primary liturgical expression of the Mystical Body of Christ – promoted heavily leading up to and following from the Second Vatican Council – in a way that would seemingly require diminishing the important role of the building itself. This approach would suggest that too much in the way of visual sacred imagery or attention to the physical surroundings risks distraction from the ultimate reality of what Christ has done and is doing for us. But can an informed Christian believe that the church building plays a more vital role?
The building is an image of the Mystical Body, and images are important for Christians. St. Paul uses the example of marriage, which is describes as a great good precisely because it is an image of the love of the Trinity, and an image of that love shared with us by means of the relationship of Christ to his body the Church. A church building, therefore, is not less important because it is an image of another reality; no – it is even more important because it serves in this elevated capacity. If we want to emphasize the community’s role as the Body of Christ, we need to be building churches that reflect it. This is a place to carefully seek guidance from the Church’s rich artistic and architectural tradition. Too abstract an interpretation of the church building’s role encourages a communal navel-gazing that fails to direct the attention of the Body toward its head, Christ, and toward the Father to whom Christ directs his sacrifice. As a result, the world should look to each Catholic church as a navel of creation, for indeed this was the understanding of the early Church.
"The church building is a sacramental because it makes present the invisible mystery of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ."
The argument for physical representation of core spiritual truths is found in the sacraments and rooted in the Incarnation. Christianity is necessarily incarnational in its thinking; material in its operation. The sacraments are earthy and tactile, and they are constituted of material and actions that are not foreign to universal human actions: eating and drinking, washing and anointing, and marriage. Each follows the model of the ministry of Christ, the eternal Word of God who became flesh. The sacraments represent, materialize, and therefore make present an invisible mystery of the divine. The things that surround the sacraments likewise play a supporting role in divine revelation: sacramentals. They point to the reality of grace within the sacraments and better dispose us to receive it. They aid us in approaching the sacraments with understanding and reverence and treating them with the dignity they are due as efficacious signs of grace. Water is a sacramental of the sacrament of baptism, so by mindfully signing ourselves with water upon entering and exiting a church, we are reminded of our baptism – both the Christian family to which we belong upon our entry, and the mission to which we are called upon our exit. The baptismal font and holy water stoops can reveal and participate in this reality or obscure it. The liturgical rites of the sacraments provide a framework for understanding the sacramentals that are necessary to support them.
It follows that functionally – because the sacraments are composed of both physical matter and a ritual form, and because they are therefore ritually tied to a temporal place for their celebration – the church building should be considered a sacramental. The church itself is composed of other sacramentals that shed light on the theological realities symbolized by the rites – the altar, the font, the sacred vessels, the crucifix. Each speaks a theology relevant to our worship. The church building is a sacramental because it makes present the invisible mystery of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ. In the same way that in the liturgy the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, the members of the assembly partaking of this sacrament become members of this Body – the new Temple which is the heavenly Jerusalem described by the apocalyptic vision of John in the Book of Revelation.
"Jesus himself explains the Father’s plan to rebuild the Temple in his resurrected Body... Christians now look to the Church that symbolizes Christ’s body..."
The image of a new Jerusalem is one that bears further meaning as well. To comprehend the ancient Jewish understanding of this prophetic vision requires knowledge of the central role of the Temple for worship and its status as a microcosm. For the Jews, the Temple represented the Kingdom of God on earth, but in a variety of representations: the primordial birthplace of all things created, the Garden of Eden; a microcosm of the ordered universe and a hope of its restoration to reverse the effects of the Fall; the abiding presence of God on earth among his people; a foretaste of the afterlife in perfect union with God. Everything in the Temple was layered with meaning. The proportions and geometry were set by God himself to represent his perfect designs for the universe. The veil, sewn by seven virgins – one of whom was the Blessed Virgin Mary, according to the Protoevangelium of James– was teeming with vibrant colors and symbols of the cosmos. The interior ornamentation represented the days of creation, stylized to imitate their perfected state – trees, plants, and animals all giving God glory. The bronze laver represented the seas, the altar the formation of the earth and the mountain of the Lord. The menorah recalled the seven days of creation. The material universe is inextricably involved in the divine worship of the Jewish people.
Similar precedents abound in other cultures; many peoples and cultures have looked to a place of ritual sacrificial worship to provide a nexus to the universe or a navel of creation; a place to connect to the divine and glimpse a realm beyond the visible. There is a consistent inclusion of matter in connecting to the divine – a sacrifice to conform the world to the divine plan. Humanity longs for such a system of worship as we can access as Catholics – gazing not just at our own navels as we reflect on what it means to be members in the Body of Christ, but seeing the Creator at the heart of his creation, the manifestation of his Word. We see Christ, the head of the Body, who took on the flesh he formed to share in his divine life. The Jews looked to the Temple for the promise of God’s abiding presence among them, which is why the Gospels – particularly Matthew, Mark, and John – point to Christ as the fulfillment of the Temple – the place of true worship. Jesus himself explains the Father’s plan to rebuild the Temple in his resurrected Body. Mary is paralleled to the Ark of the Covenant as the abiding place of God’s presence. Christians now look to the Church that symbolizes Christ’s body and the Tabernacle that contains his holy presence in the Blessed Sacrament. Here we see the heart of all things created – the divine life of the Creator being shared with his creation to join it to himself. For it is Christ who is the image of the Father, and he who is the Logos – the eternal Word of God through whom all things are created and brought to perfection. Sharing in his Passion, through the power of the Holy Spirit, “we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” To find a summary of this theology, ideally one need only look as far as a well-designed Catholic church.
While the true purpose of a church building remains a point of confusion and debate for many, starting with a solid understanding of salvation history and the sacraments offers a viable remedy. If we believe that these sacred symbols indeed mediate the grace made available to the Church by the Pascal Mystery of Christ and complete God’s saving work, we do well to fully realize the earth-shattering implications of these sacred gifts. In the context of a building that both conveys their immediate meaning as vehicles of grace and provides a connection to the Paschal Mystery and to the larger story of salvation history, their substance is brought fully to light in a tangible way. Understanding the role of the sacraments as dispensers of grace, their role in God’s saving work, and their application for Christian living is exactly what the Magisterium has urged Catholics to make their focus. If the church building is the Christian Temple, it is exactly the remedy needed to aid the Church in her efforts to reclaim the symbolic system that is the lifeblood of the Catholic faith, deeply drawing us all into the sacred celebration of the Paschal mystery that is the summation of all of salvation history.