The dedication of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem lasted eight days [I Kings 8:65-66]. The rededication of the temple, after its desecration by the Greek Antiochus Epiphanes also lasted eight days [I Maccabees 4:56]. It is not far-fetched to imagine that St. John the Evangelist had this eight-day period in mind when he described the second appearance of Jesus to His disciples after the Resurrection [John 20:26-29], especially in his emphasis on sight. The Jerusalem temple was pre-eminently connected, in the mind of ancient Israel, with the vision of God. “When shall I enter and see the face of God?” asks the Psalmist, and many other Psalms could be produced to the same effect.
The new temple is Christ’s own body, desecrated and defiled in the Crucifixion, but raised up after three days, and now a spiritual house of prayer for all peoples. St. John’s further emphasis on Christ’s greeting of “peace/shalom” (John 20:19, 20, 26) accentuates this connection. The temple was built in Jerusalem, which, by a pious etymology, was believed to be the city of peace. Solomon, whose very name was connected to the grace of shalom, was its builder. Christ, the true Solomon, gives the peace that the world cannot give, by bringing down to us the heavenly Jerusalem.
This short, and very incomplete, sketch of the significance of the new temple gives a sense of the theological depth mined by the Church Fathers and medieval monks in celebrating the sanctification of the church building. In the ordinary form of the Roman Rite, the anniversary of the dedication of the church is to be celebrated yearly as a solemnity, the highest rank among liturgical days.
Following the Church’s liturgy in this case is especially important in our time when a latent iconoclasm lingers in much of the Catholic Church in the West. Religion has become a private affair, and the notion that God might be visible through the sacramental representation of icon and architecture seems foreign to the experiences of many. I suspect that this blindness could be remedied if we learned to “read” our churches again. Much of the incarnate pedagogy of church architecture was obscured by renovations carried out after Vatican II. But obscure needn’t mean invisible, and a little effort of imagination (the making of inward images) under the instruction of Church history can help the scales fall once again from our eyes.
Our monastery church, beautifully designed by the eminent architect Hermann J. Gaul, is a fine example of theology in brick and stone. The church is in the shape of a cross, which is to say in the shape of a human body—Christ’s. The sanctuary, in the middle of which stands the altar, corresponds to the place of the Head. The choir—the place of the monks—corresponds to the heart and voice, and the nave belongs to the faithful, who are the Body of Christ. The building is held up by twelve pillars, the “twelve Apostles of the Lamb” in our midst [Revelation 21:14, describing the foundations of the New Jerusalem]. The bases and capitals of the pillars are eight-sided, recalling the new creation on the eighth day, the previous seven-day creation having passed away. The various processions that take place in the liturgy (entrance, procession of the gifts, the communion procession) involve each of us in the dynamism of God’s saving and sanctifying energies (as they are more typically known in the Christian East).
The Archdiocese of Chicago faces many challenges in the present, including declining attendance at liturgy and, one supposes, a corresponding decline in financial resources. Is this a sign that we no longer are able to read the amazing truth of God’s salvation in our churches? An older theological density has tended to give way to a thin, more sociological understanding of worship. Contemporary habits of education further tend to pry our attention away from the numinous, the thickly symbolic world proposed by the Church. In contrast to the contentious “marketplace of ideas,” the Church’s symbolic world is full of wordless intimacy and noble aspirations. What if it turned out that God is offering us this intimacy, not through talkativeness and self-conscious inclusivity, but through the very resources that we already have, in which we should already be expert? Might a resurgence in Catholic participation and the saving of our precious church buildings be closer than we thought, in the very buildings themselves and the liturgies that the Church proposes we celebrate within them?
We invite you to pray with us the evening in praise of our God, Who has revealed Himself through His Son, and continues to sanctify us through the Body of Christ. And may this celebration also be a cry for God’s mercy, that He reinvigorate the faith in our midst, that we may truly be salt and light for a world desperately in need of illumination.
—Fr. Peter Funk, OSB