The Eternal Majesty of a Catholic Church, 3 of 3

This is the third part of a three-part series. Read Part 1, “Restore the Liturgy; Start With the Building,” here; Part 2, “What is the Nature of a Church Building,” here; Part 3, “The Eternal Majesty of a Catholic Church,” here.

The Order of the Dedication of a Church and an Altar share a beautiful theological accounting of “The Nature and Dignity of Churches.” But the greatest richness of theological content lies, perhaps, in the Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer in the liturgy of the dedication of the church itself (DC, 75). In five short sentences, it summarizes the entire theology of the church building, beginning by explaining why churches exist at all.

While acknowledging that God has “made the whole world a temple” of his glory so that his name “might everywhere be extolled,” the first sentence notes that church buildings are permitted by God’s graciousness: “you allow us to consecrate to you apt places for the divine mysteries.” The word “consecrate” traditionally indicates that things pass “from common or profane order to a new state, and become the subjects or the instruments of Divine protection.” Unlike the homogenous space of the world, the space inside a consecrated church is made “apt,” or especially fitting, for the celebration of God’s own saving work. And so, the second sentence notes, this “house of prayer, built by human labor” is dedicated joyfully to God’s majesty.

As the prayer continues, it makes two further claims: “here is foreshadowed the mystery of the true Temple, here is prefigured the image of the heavenly Jerusalem.” The word “mystery” can be translated as sacrament. The “true Temple,” of course, carries multiple meanings, but in each case, it signifies the intimate union of God with his creation, from the Garden of Eden as “temple” where Adam and Eve lived in easy relationship with God to the Temple of Solomon as microcosm of glorified heaven and earth.

But the term “heavenly Jerusalem,” of which the church building is the image, absorbs and completes the previous terms. “Heavenly Jerusalem” is identical with heaven itself at the end of time, when the rift between God and humanity that has festered since the Fall is completely overcome, and God and his people are so unified as to be called “married” in the Wedding Feast of the Lamb (Revelation 19:7), an eternal state of unified, glorified, transfigured bliss made possible by Christ. This Christological, theological, and eschatological claim is then sealed by the next sentence: “For you made the Body of your Son, born of the tender Virgin, the Temple consecrated to you, in which the fullness of the Godhead might dwell.” The Church is Christ’s body, and the church building is an image of that body brought to glory.

The final paragraph of the preface continues the notion of heaven as Jerusalem, calling it a “holy city.” Like a body and a building, a city is a corporate entity made of many members which must be properly arranged under proper headship to thrive. “Built on the foundation of the apostles with Christ as the chief cornerstone,” the rest of the city is “to be built of chosen stones given life by the Spirit and bonded in charity.” “Chosen stones” refers to the many members of Christ’s body, given life by the Spirit the way a soul gives life to a body. In yet one more architectural analogy, the members are bonded together by God’s love — another name for the Holy Spirit — the way stones would be joined by mortar, or absence of mortar, as with the Temple of Solomon.

When the City-Church-Body is fully assembled, the prayer proclaims, God will be “all in all” for “endless ages,” and the “light of Christ will shine undimmed forever.” It is easy to see how a great church images this theological reality: every stone is in its proper place after being shaped by workers’ hands, and gem-like color and radiance shine forth while the worshipers inside sing together the perfect praise of God made possible by Christ and the Holy Spirit.

A Place for Eternity

Church architecture and its allied arts, then, allow worshipers to participate in time and space in that which is outside of time and space: the realized perfection of God’s eternal plan for salvation. Much more than a meeting house, more than a neutral backdrop for liturgical action, more than a living room, the church building is part of the rite itself, a theological contribution for the eye in the way that sung prayer addresses the ear. In each case, the mind is engaged, the soul is uplifted, and God’s self-revelation is encountered. And in each encounter, Christ’s saving power is applied and serves as a stroke of the Savior-mason’s hammer, preparing each Christian little by little to be placed in the great “cathedral” of heaven which is the Christ’s glorified Mystical Body. The Church’s liturgical books give the theological principles, and God then gives to man the task of sharing in his plan: building up the kingdom until he comes.

Read Part 1, “Restore the Liturgy; Start With the Building,” here.
Read Part 2, “What is the Nature of a Church Building,” here.
Read Part 3, “The Eternal Majesty of a Catholic Church,” here.

This appeared at Adoremus.
Image: Jean Louis Mazieres, Flickr.

Denis McNamara

Denis R. McNamara is formerly the Executive Director of the Center for Beauty and Culture at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. He is the author of Heavenly City: The Architectural Tradition of Catholic Chicago and Catholic Church Architecture and The Spirit of the Liturgy.