The Word of God

Angels in the Architecture

Reflection on Mass Reading for November 9, 2018

Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome/History and Background: Each diocese has a cathedral. The cathedral church in Rome is St. John Lateran. When the Emperor Constantine officially recognized Christianity, he made generous gifts to the church, one of which was a palace and grounds formerly belonging to the Laterani family. In 324, he added a large church on the grounds. Later a baptistery was added and dedicated to St. John the Baptist. In subsequent years the entire edifice became known as St. John of the Lateran Basilica. It is our oldest church. Despite many fires, earthquakes and wars, it has survived; thereby, becoming a symbol of the endurability of Christianity. The observance of this feast connects our local church with the Church of Rome, which is the center of our unity. The dedication of any church recalls the heavenly Jerusalem that all church buildings symbolize.

The Apostles are the pillars of the Church and Christ has given them the spiritual authority to teach and guide, which the chair, cathedra, symbolizes in every cathedral.  All this is seen within this magnificent structure. The people are the Church, the living Body of Christ with many members: that much is clear, but that concept or expression of unlocking the mystery of the Church is not exclusive. We are also a “Sacramental” people who have enlisted art and architecture, literature and music to embody and describe tangibly, that is, to the touch and all the senses, what great mystery we not only celebrate but also actually see. The church building is not just a tent or skin in which the people of God gather, but in and of itself is of great symbolic and sacramental importance. This is why we celebrate the Feast of the dedication of that first structure in Rome from which all the many millions of structures have been built and dedicated since then.

The Church building is meant to be the Temple. The First Reading from the Prophet Ezekiel describes that. The Psalms, too were actually composed to be chanted and sung as people made their way to the Temple for worship. Today, just as in the Temple of the Old Testament, there are the areas that are set apart in Catholic Churches where we find the Tabernacle, where the body and blood of Jesus is conserved, as the “Holy of Holies,” the living presence of God. This is why we bow, genuflect upon entering this space. It also explains why many make the Sign of the Cross when passing by the Church from the outside. We also have altars predominantly and immediately seen in a foremost position. You see, the church building itself is not just a gathering place or hall. So why is there an altar? Because there is a sacrifice to be conducted. And those sacrifices are offered by priests. So you have the same Temple structure that clearly exhibits the elements that were first established in the First, or Old Covenant. The Church, in addition to being a structure that helps gather people, also reflects the mystery of the people as well: Tabernacle, altar, priests, sacrifice.  So when the temple/church building is rightly ordered, then water will be “flowing out” for the renewal of the world. (First Reading)

The Church building is to symbolize the New Jerusalem. In Revelation, the vision describes a magnificent new heavenly city coming down to earth be complete and restore all humanity with God at the end of time. Thus, in addition to a gathering space, Church buildings should attempt to draw us into another world, a heavenly experience like the jeweled walls of the New Jerusalem, with sparkling and vivid colors that are filled with signs and symbols of heavenly realities. We see figures of angels and saints everywhere in the Church because they are citizens of heaven, the New Jerusalem, and we join with them in singing praises to God:

This great company of witnesses spurs us onto victory, to share their prize of everlasting glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord. With angels and archangels and the whole company of saints we sing our unending hymn of praise: Holy, holy, holy Lord…,

The Church building is meant to signal Noah’s Ark. Since the early installments of Church history, the ark was seen as a symbolic type of the Church. In the same way that Noah and his family were spared the destruction of both the spiritual and physical world around them, so too, are we safe and saved in the Church, the boat, as it were, atop the waters of Baptism. This is an on-going occurrence in every age throughout the centuries and the Church is the on-going, continual and steady “rescue mission for humanity.” (Bishop Robert Barron) When we gather for Mass, we remain, close together, huddled for the Eucharist and waiting for “flood waters” to recede and then go out to the world to begin again.

“The Church is like Noah’s ark that was full of both clean and unclean animals. It must have had an unholy smell, and yet it was carrying eight persons to salvation. The world today is tearing up the photographs of a good society, a good family, a happy, individual personal life. But the Church is keeping the negatives. And when the moment comes when the world wants a reprint, we will have them.” —Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen

It is also very interesting to go back to the Scriptures and examine the orders that God gave Noah to build what is most likely the most popular boat in human history found in Genesis, 6:19: “This is how you shall build it: the length of the ark will be three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits.”  For St. Augustine and other early Church fathers, these dimensions of the construction plan for the ark suggest a human body, specifically, the body of Christ: “For even its very dimensions, in length, breadth, and height, represent the human body in which He (Jesus) came, as it had been foretold. For the length of the human body, from the crown of the head to the sole of the foot, is six times its breadth from side to side, and ten times its depth or thickness, measuring from back to front.” The City of God, Book 15

The Church building is meant to symbolize the mystical body of Christ. It’s really amazing, when you stop and think about it, so much of both the human and spiritual dimensions of our lives actually happen inside the Church building itself. New life is always being announced with the smell and sound of babies at Baptism, children sing and serve Mass, teenagers are confirmed, marriages are celebrated and yes, when the circle of life is completed, there we are again, at the Church where it all spiritually began, tearfully saying goodbye and “until we met again.” It is more than a theater stage or a meeting hall. It is life.

From life’s start to finish and all the wonderful episodes in between, being Church and in the Church building comprises the place and time in which we hear and experience what some have speculated are three basic sentences that summarize all of Christianity: Please, Thank You and I’m Sorry. And just like the Temple, in both the earthly and heavenly Jerusalem, where there is a convergence of costly, precious and holy stones, so too, the mystical body is made up of living stones — the people who are transformed by grace, the Word of God and the food of the Eucharist day after day, age after age. We become that new temple.

“The Church is the body of Christ, and as such it is both heavenly and earthly. The Church is the communion of saints, and it includes as members both angels and shepherds – cherubim and seraphim, and you, and me.”  —Scott Hahn

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