Monday, November 8, 2010

What Is a Church?

Some 25 years ago, when I was a seminarian in Washington, DC, my best friend in seminary one day jokingly kidded me about my rapidly diminishing hair, to which I responded by chasing him down the hall and up the stairs, finally cornering him when he took refuge in the chapel, where he grabbed hold of the altar and confidently declared, “You can’t hit me here. This is a church!” (P.S., I didn’t hit him, and we remain good friends to this day).

Churches are indeed special places. Just this past Sunday, the Pope went to Barcelona, where, in the presence of the King and Queen of Spain, he consecrated Antonio Gaudi’s monumental church (now a basilica) Sagrada Familia. The Pope called Gaudi (1852-1926) “a creative architect and a practising Christian who kept the torch of his faith alight to the end of his life, a life lived in dignity and absolute austerity.” The Pope went on to quote the architect as saying: "A church [is] the only thing worthy of representing the soul of a people, for religion is the most elevated reality in man".

I have never been to Barcelona and so have never seen Sagrada Familia, but I have certainly been to many other famous (and not so famous) churches - rugged Romanesque churches, their interior vaults shielded by exterior towers, great gothic cathedrals, their long naves forming frames for wide windows of stained glass through which light is totally transformed and whose pointed arches just lift one to another world where gravity seems gone, beautiful baroque churches, whose florid magnificence invites one to identify with the mystery so powerfully portrayed in their architecture, and also, sadly, sterile modern churches, whose ugliness speaks volumes about the spiritual impoverishment of our age. (And, of course, I have served as parish priest in two amazingly beautiful historic churches – St. Paul the Apostle in New York, the “Mother-Church” of the Paulist Fathers, and Immaculate Conception in Knoxville, the Victorian Gothic “Mother Church” of East Tennessee).

From time immemorial, people have had special places – hilltops, sacred springs, stone temples – to which to go to worship. The true God, of course, is personal, not local, not confined or tied down to any one special place. Still, as human beings we can only operate in space and time, which is why God himself became human – in a particular place and at a particular time in human history. So it’s no surprise that, through the ages, God has continued to inspire his people to set aside special places in which to assemble to worship him. So Solomon built the Jerusalem Temple to be a holy house of prayer and praise. So too did the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great when he converted the Lateran Basilica in Rome into a church – the Pope’s church, and hence “the mother and head of all the churches of the City and the world” – the anniversary of whose consecration and dedication on November 9, 324 A.D. the Church solemnly celebrates tomorrow.

It’s no accident that in the classic Roman liturgy, the Gospel reading for the Mass for the Dedication of a Church was Luke 19:1-10, the story of Zacchaeus the Tax Collector. Zacchaeus famously climbed a sycamore tree to see Jesus. But Zaccaeus did not make a church out of his tree. Rather, Jesus called him down from his tree – “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house” – in order to create a church out of his house – “Today salvation has come to this house … for the Son of Man has come to seek and save what was lost.”

Before we build beautiful shrines and temples, God has first acted upon us. So it is not because we build buildings that we have churches, but because God has made himself the God of those buildings by first of all making himself the God of the builders – by building us, together with his crucified and risen Son, into a consecrated and dedicated people, whom we also call a Church (this time with a capital “C”).

Built by God himself into his Church, we then build earthly churches in whihc to assemble and worship - great and beautiful churches which testify to the fullness of our faith, the height of our hope and the depth of our love. (We may also build ugly modern churches, which testify in their own way to the sterility of a culture in the process of losing its faith and hence is increasingly bereft of hope and lacking in love).

And so we pray in union with the whole Church: “Your house of prayer is also the promise of the Church in heaven. Here your love is always at work, preparing the Church on earth for her heavenly glory as the sinless bride of Christ, the joyful mother of a great company of saints.” (Preface for the Anniversary of the Dedication of a Church).

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