How we build our churches says a lot about our perspective of what constitutes beauty in worship. King Solomon spared no expense in constructing the first Temple in Jerusalem. Both Ezekiel and the Book of Revelation speak of a magnificent Temple, in the latter's case, it is within the heavenly Jerusalem. In Spanish, church buildings are commonly referred to as "temples". I don't know why that is the case, but, perhaps because it harkens to our roots in Ancient Israel. Whatever the case, whether we call these structures churches or temples, the same principle of beauty applies.
It is that same recognition of beauty that His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI, addressed this morning during the homily that he preached to dedicate the Church of the Holy Family in Barcelona, Spain. The church, under construction since 1882, will not be fully complete until the mid 21st century. However, quite a bit of the structure, including the interior, is complete, hence the dedication ceremony of both the Altar and the Blessed Sacrament Chapel.
The Holy Father notes, in part, that:
In the heart of the world, placed before God and mankind, with a humble and joyful act of faith, we raise up this massive material structure, fruit of nature and an immense achievement of human intelligence which gave birth to this work of art. It stands as a visible sign of the invisible God, to whose glory these spires rise like arrows pointing towards absolute light and to the One who is Light, Height and Beauty itself.This last sentence is important. At every Mass, we go back to those key elements in our Salvation. We go back to the incarnation. We go back to the Paschal Mystery. We become just as present at these salviffic events as were the Blessed Mother, the Apostles and St. Mary Magdalene. Heaven and earth unite at every Mass. The architecture, especially the sanctuary, need to reflect this incredible mystery. Sadly, our Catholic churches are becoming sterile andindustrial. They are built in a manner that is devoid of anything that could easily identify them as churches, let alone a Catholic ones.
In this place, Gaudí (the architect) desired to unify that inspiration which came to him from the three books which nourished him as a man, as a believer and as an architect: the book of nature, the book of sacred Scripture and the book of the liturgy. In this way he brought together the reality of the world and the history of salvation, as recounted in the Bible and made present in the liturgy. He made stones, trees and human life part of the church so that all creation might come together in praise of God, but at the same time he brought the sacred images outside so as to place before people the mystery of God revealed in the birth, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Pope Benedict further drives the point home when he says that:
In this way, he brilliantly helped to build our human consciousness, anchored in the world yet open to God, enlightened and sanctified by Christ. In this he accomplished one of the most important tasks of our times: overcoming the division between human consciousness and Christian consciousness, between living in this temporal world and being open to eternal life, between the beauty of things and God as beauty. Antoni Gaudí did this not with words but with stones, lines, planes, and points. Indeed, beauty is one of mankind’s greatest needs; it is the root from which the branches of our peace and the fruits of our hope come forth. Beauty also reveals God because, like him, a work of beauty is pure gratuity; it calls us to freedom and draws us away from selfishness.
But, there is more than simply looking at the external and interior beauty of a church. The Holy Father reminds us that we, too, are temples of the Holy Spirit. He ties the idea of both the physical structure and man when he notes that:
We have dedicated this sacred space to God, who revealed and gave himself to us in Christ so as to be definitively God among men. The revealed Word, the humanity of Christ and his Church are the three supreme expressions of his self-manifestation and self-giving to mankind. As says Saint Paul in the second reading: “Let each man take care how he builds. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 3:10-11). The Lord Jesus is the stone which supports the weight of the world, which maintains the cohesion of the Church and brings together in ultimate unity all the achievements of mankind. In him, we have God’s word and presence and from him the Church receives her life, her teaching and her mission. The Church of herself is nothing; she is called to be the sign and instrument of Christ, in pure docility to his authority and in total service to his mandate. The one Christ is the foundation of the one Church. He is the rock on which our faith is built. Building on this faith, let us strive together to show the world the face of God who is love and the only one who can respond to our yearning for fulfilment. This is the great task before us: to show everyone that God is a God of peace not of violence, of freedom not of coercion, of harmony not of discord. In this sense, I consider that the dedication of this church of the Sagrada Familia is an event of great importance, at a time in which man claims to be able to build his life without God, as if God had nothing to say to him. In this masterpiece, Gaudí shows us that God is the true measure of man; that the secret of authentic originality consists, as he himself said, in returning to one’s origin which is God. Gaudí, by opening his spirit to God, was capable of creating in this city a space of beauty, faith and hope which leads man to an encounter with him who is truth and beauty itself. The architect expressed his sentiments in the following words: “A church [is] the only thing worthy of representing the soul of a people, for religion is the most elevated reality in man”.
This affirmation of God brings with it the supreme affirmation and protection of the dignity of each and every man and woman: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple? … God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Cor 3:16-17). Here we find joined together the truth and dignity of God and the truth and dignity of man. As we consecrate the altar of this church, which has Christ as its foundation, we are presenting to the world a God who is the friend of man and we invite men and women to become friends of God. This is what we are taught in the case of Zacchaeus, of whom today’s gospel speaks (Lk 19:1-10), if we allow God into our hearts and into our world, if we allow Christ to live in our hearts, we will not regret it: we will experience the joy of sharing his very life, as the object of his infinite love.
Pope Benedict makes clear in this last section the importance and sacredness of the altar. Christ becomes present, really and fully present, at every Mass. While the Church teaches us that He is present in the Word, in the faithful and in the person of the priest, Christ's presence par excellence is in the Holy Eucharist. He is there, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity on the altar. That is why the altar is the central point in a Catholic church (along, of course, with the Tabernacle, where the Blessed Sacrament is held). It is not just a table. It is the altar of sacrifice. That is something that we need to recapture in our churches as well. The altar is not a mere piece of furnishing in the sanctuary. It is sacred because a truly divine act happens there. Thus, that space needs to be resepcted.
At the Mass, the faithful gather to participate in an act that is extraordinary. The faithful gather around the priest to offer God a Holy and Living Sacrifice. It is a truly sacred act that should happen in a space that is truly sacred.The challenge for those parishes and architects who are working on building new parish churches is to precisely to overcome "the division between human consciousness and Christian consciousness, between living in this temporal world and being open to eternal life." It seems lost on not a few of us that during the Mass, the veil is lifted between heaven and earth, and time and space. At this point, we stand in the very presence of the divine majesty of God. With God, everything is in the eternal present.