Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Catecheses in Stone

Solemnity of the Dedication of St John Lateran

Today, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Dedication of the St John Lateran, the first church to be formally dedicated after Constantine allowed Christians to practice their faith freely and openly. Prior to this, the persecuted ‘church’, or the community of Christians clandestinely gathered in “church-houses”, residential homes which included a hall or a room meant for worship and the celebration of the Mass. Many Catholics may not be aware that the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, is not the Basilica of St Peter, but the Basilica of St John Lateran. For the above reasons, it is only fitting that the following inscription appears on the fa├žade of this ancient Church, “omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput,” meaning “the mother and mistress of all churches of Rome and the world.”

The celebration of the dedication or consecration of a building, even though it may be of a church, seems strange and anachronistic to many of us. This risks being seen as some form of architectural idolatry. Are we worshipping a building, rather than worshipping in a building? The fact that the liturgy of the anniversary of this dedication takes precedence over our Sunday liturgy reinforces this suspicion. We have perhaps been told in the past that the Church is not a building but in reality a community of believers, thus a church building seems only secondary to our identity. Such an explanation seems to say it’s more about the “people” than about the “building,” which explains the common caution from good-willed people that we should be busy “building communities” rather than “building churches.” The shop-lot churches of the Protestants perhaps lend greater support to this type of reasoning. We can actually worship anywhere and everywhere. Buildings are just a “necessary evil.”

What we fail to recognise is that such reasoning is not, has never been, and never will be part of Catholic thought. It flies against our sacramental sense of things. The age-old definition of St Thomas Aquinas for a sacrament is “outward sign of inward grace,” constantly reminds us that our material world, so transformed and divinised by the Incarnation, allows us to have a glance of the spiritual and invisible realm. Therefore, St Augustine describes the “church” building as an outward sign of who we are interiorly. "What was done here, as these walls were rising, is reproduced when we bring together those who believe in Christ. For, by believing they are hewn out, as it were, from mountains and forests, like stones and timber; but by catechising, baptism and instruction they are, as it were, shaped, squared and planed by the hands of the workers and artisans. Nevertheless, they do not make a house for the Lord until they are fitted together through love" (St. Augustine, Sermon 36).

The church is catecheses in stone, therefore, it is properly said to be a sacramental building since it makes present to us the realities of heaven and earth at the end of time. The past, the present and the future converge in this architectural image. In the time of shadow, the Temple of Solomon gave us a look at this future glory. In the future, in the time of realisation of the Promise, the celebrations of heaven will be purely communion and feast without need of material mediation. But now, as beings who perceive through the senses, we human beings require the image. The Church building, with its liturgical arts, tells us in a way that nothing else can, what heaven looks like, who is there, and what the nature of redeemed creation might be like. In short, it gives us a “foretaste” of the realities by way of image.

So, a door is not just any door, but a symbol of the Pearly Gates. The holy water font at every door reminds us that baptism is the sacrament that opens the doorway to salvation. The pillars of the Church remind us that the Church of Christ is built on the firm foundation of the Twelve Apostles. The leafy ornamentation above the pillars reminds us of Paradise Regained, where we are permitted once again to feast on fruits of the Tree of Life, once denied to our fallen ancestors. The nave (from the Latin “navis” – ship) of the Church, where the congregation sits, reminds us that we are secure within the hull of the barque of St Peter, the ark of salvation, protected from the raging winds and stormy waves that often threaten but never succeed in breaching the integrity of the Church. The soaring rafters and the company of saints that adorn the Church remind us that we are citizens of the Heavenly City and merely sojourners on earth. The Chair, the ambo and the altar signify to us that it is Christ Himself who shepherds and teaches and who finally offers himself as the Perfect Sacrifice to the Father for our salvation, and who will return on the Last Day to act as both Judge and Saviour. And the Tabernacle with the eternal flame burning at its side reminds us that even in the darkest moments of desolation, when all hope seems lost, Christ is not just symbolically present but truly, really and substantially present to us as food for the journey and the most potent antidote to evil, suffering and death.

This is why a church cannot just be viewed functionally. When liturgical architecture presents merely a functional or at least neutral setting or is viewed as a museum of devotional objects, then the consequences are dire. There is truism in the ancient maxim, Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vivendi (the Law of Prayer determines the Law of Belief, which ultimately determines the Law of Life). Thus, a church built purely on considerations of acoustic soundness and seating capacity, one which resembles an auditorium or a convention hall, may actually result in people expecting entertainment and outstanding performances, rather than inspire reverential awe for the purpose of sacred worship. It is no wonder that people are more often found dressed like they are going to the pub or a stroll in the park, rather than coming before the King of Kings, surrounded by His heavenly court.

Often, we hear people commenting how a church looks an airplane hangar or a factory warehouse. This is not just a matter of architectural taste but a statement that the theological reality of the building appears opposed to its architecture. When a Church does not look like the Church, rather than revealing the realities of heaven, it reveals a falsity because it’s very identity is not manifested in its physical expression (a factory is not how we would imagine heaven). It might be a mighty fine factory, but as a church, it is not beautiful, it does not reflect the heavenly liturgy.

As we celebrate the Dedication, the Birthday of our Mother Church, a day where we renew our fraternal communion with our Holy Father and the Church of Rome, we are called to celebrate the beauty of Holy Mother the Church, which is reflected in the beauty of her churches. St John Paul II, writing to artists, reminds them and all of us, “Beauty enthuses us for work, and work is to raise us up.” When he speaks of the work that is being enthused by beauty, he means the labour of prayer. In our fallen earthly condition, in a dehumanising age where man is often valued in a utilitarian way, where despair becomes a constant temptation, we are in need of joy and enthusiasm. The beauty of our Churches inspires both joy and enthusiasm. Thus, such beauty is indeed necessary for salvation. For in them, we receive hope and a constant reminder that we are to become ever more the Temple of the Holy Spirit, the Living Stones which make up the Body of Christ, and it is "in him we have redemption by his blood, the forgiveness of transgressions, in accord with the riches of his grace." (Eph. 1:7)


Chapter 5 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, reminds us of the following points:

§ 16 § Just as the term Church refers to the living temple, God's People, the term church also has been used to describe "the building in which the Christian community gathers to hear the word of God, to pray together, to receive the sacraments, and celebrate the Eucharist." That building is both the house of God on earth (domus Dei) and a house fit for the prayers of the saints (domus ecclesiae). Such a house of prayer must be expressive of the presence of God and suited for the celebration of the sacrifice of Christ, as well as reflective of the community that celebrates there.

§ 17 § The church is the proper place for the liturgical prayer of the parish community, especially the celebration of the Eucharist on Sunday. It is also the privileged place for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and reservation of the Eucharist for Communion for the sick. Whenever communities have built houses for worship, the design of the building has been of critical importance. Churches are never "simply gathering spaces but signify and make visible the Church living in [a particular] place, the dwelling of God" among us, now "reconciled and united in Christ." As such, the building itself becomes "a sign of the pilgrim Church on earth and reflects the Church dwelling in heaven." Every church building is a gathering place for the assembly, a resting place, a place of encounter with God, as well as a point of departure on the Church's unfinished journey toward the reign of God.

§ 18 § Churches, therefore, must be places "suited to sacred celebrations," "dignified," and beautiful. Their suitability for worship is determined by their ability through the architectural design of space and the application of artistic gifts to embody God's initiative and the community's faithful response. Church buildings and the religious artworks that beautify them are forms of worship themselves and both inspire and reflect the prayer of the community as well as the inner life of grace. Conversely, church buildings and religious artifacts that are trivial, contrived, or lack beauty can detract from the community's liturgy. Architecture and art become the joint work of the Holy Spirit and the local community, that of preparing human hearts to receive God's word and to enter more fully into communion with God.

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