"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

Tuesday 26 June 2018


Pope Benedict XVI consecrating the altar of La Sagrada Familia

 "The liturgy is the time of God and space of God, and we must put ourselves there in the time of God, in the space of God, and not look at our watches. The liturgy is nothing less than entering into the mystery of God, allowing ourselves to be carried to the mystery and to be in the mystery. It is the cloud of God that envelops us all."(Pope Francis)

The church is holy because it houses the gathered Church; and the altar is holy because it is on this table that Mass is celebrated. The real church is the Christian community: the building is only a "church" by association. Realising this has led many to conclude that the value of the church building lies only in its function, and that it is not a holy place as the Temple in Jerusalem was holy. They believe that only the community is holy, the building an optional extra. This has been reflected in the architecture of churches which often look like secular buildings; and movements like the Neo-catechumenists have been known to prefer to celebrate the Eucharist outside church buildings. After all, the earliest christians had no church buildings.

 If Le Corbusier defined a house as a "machine for living in", many modern churches look very much like "machines for praying in", sheltering the real Church from the elements and nothing more, without being holy themselves.

In this post I am going to argue that this is contrary to Catholic Tradition, that a Catholic church is superior in its level of holiness to anything in the Jerusalem Temple, including the Holy of Holies. If reverence and awe were appropriate in the Temple, as the Old Testament shows us they were, even more are they appropriate wherever the Catholic liturgy is celebrated, even if this holiness is only a reflected glory, its source in the liturgical celebration of the Christian community. 

Genesis gives a cosmic role to Adam and Eve, naming all the animals, giving meaning to Creation. They were made in his image, and so became the means by which God's holiness is poured out on Creation, giving it meaning, as well as being Creation's voice by which it praises and gives thanks to the Lord. That is why Adam's fall was of cosmic importance, messing up everything. Christ’s salvation would restore us as human beings to this central role in the world’s sanctification.

Salvation, putting things right, is not just about souls: it is about restoring God's proper relationship to Creation as a whole, making it transparent to his divine Presence - making it holy - through the activity of Christians who share by the Incarnation in the very life of God. In New Testament times, the Temple is replaced by Christ´s body and by Christians who are members of his body and share in the Spirit.  

This does not mean that the there are no sacred places or things. The very contrary is true; and they are all over the place. Wherever the Christian life is lived becomes holy by association, far holier than any pre-Christian site. It is the effect of the Incarnation.

Places are always holy to the degree that God is active in them; and things are holy to the degree that God uses them. God works in and through the Church and its members. Thus prisons and places of torture become holy because in them Christian martyrs have suffered and died; hospitals become holy because Gods loves the patients through the sisters that run them; the streets of Calcutta became holy through the activity of Mother Teresa's sisters; Christian homes become holy because of the Christian life that is nurtured there; music becomes holy to the extent that its beauty reflects the divine Glory. Most obvious of all, churches are holy because, within them, heaven and earth unite in the Eucharist and God acts at every level of church life.

 It is the function of Christian architecture and art to reflect this reality and mediate it to those who take part in the liturgy.   Salvation in Christ restores to the Church and its members the means to sanctify places and things we use in the Lord's service, because we become Christ's instruments.   Only at the Second Coming will the whole cosmos be holy in that way; but we Christians have a foretaste.   Because of it, God's revelation, which comes to us as a Word, directed at our hearing,  but then takes a myriad of shapes which are directed to all our senses.   Thus we say with St John:

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life -  this life was revealed, and we have seen it.

Nowhere is this illustrated more than in a proper Christian church, whether from East or West.     It is the function of Church art to manifest the reality that it reflects. Hence, whatever the style, a church that does not look like a church is a failure from the very start. It must proclaim by its design the Gospel that is preached within it and aid the disciples to respond.      A church is a place where heaven and earth join together in Christ to gratefully receive and praise the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit.  A church must speak to us of God, the angels and the saints and thus  help us to participate in a unity that transcends the local congregation.

It was Pope Benedict’s love of baroque art and architecture that is such a revelation.  He explains that
 “in line with the tradition of the West, the Council [of Trent] again emphasised the didactic and pedagogical character of art, but, as a fresh start toward interior renewal, it led once more to a new kind of seeing that comes from and returns within. The altarpiece is like a window through which the world of God comes out to us. The curtain of temperately is raised, and we are allowed a glimpse into the inner life of the world of God. This art is intended to insert us into the liturgy of heaven. Again and again, we experience a Baroque church as a unique kind of fortissimo of joy, an Alleluia in visual form.”
Pope Benedict looks at the Baroque church through the eyes that have been opened by an in-depth dialogue with Orthodoxy, a dialogue that is an essential ingredient of the authentic "spirit of Vatican II" and a characteristic of all the popes from Pope Paul VI to our present Pope Francis, and is absolutely pivotal in the theology of Pope Benedict who is, perhaps, one of the greatest Catholic theologians of the last hundred years.

We belong to the New Covenant in which all religious institutions of the Old Testament have been replaced by people. Christ is the temple, the priesthood, the only victim and the altar, and has also replaced the Law of Moses as the Way (). The Blessed Virgin Mary is the Ark of the New Covenant; and, when she was by Christ’s side while he was dying on the cross, she embraced both her Son and the whole human race in her love, and thus she came to represent all those down the ages whose synergy with the Holy Spirit would make them one with Christ on the cross: At the foot of the cross she was personally the Church in its relationship to Christ, the New Eve, and Mother of all the living.. As our icon depicts, she is personally what the Church is collectively: she is the Bride of the Lamb.. No longer is God’s dwelling place among the people on earth a building. Since Christ’s Ascension, the temple has been replaced by us who are participants in Christ; we are his body, the Church, in whom God dwells bodily, reconciling the world to himself. By participating in the Eucharistic fellowship we become “the one temple of his Spirit”. In the Old Testament, the covenanted presence of God depended on the temple and the fulfilment of the purification ritual on the Day of the Atonement; and the altar sanctified the offering so that it could be offered on no other altar; and hence the crisis when the temple was destroyed. In New Testament times, in contrast, it is the presence of God’s People that sanctifies the church; and it is the offering by Christ of himself that sanctifies our offering and the altar on which it is placed.

The Consecration of a Church
Pope Benedict consecrating La Sacrada Familia in Barcelona (2 mins) 

When Russians drink a toast, they smash the glass afterwards to indicate that who or what they have toasted is of such importance that the glass should not be used for any inferior purpose. Where God speaks through his word, where the Holy Spirit transforms mere human beings into sons and daughters of God at baptism, where the Father responds to the prayer of the priest and sends the Holy Spirit to transform bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood and the praying congregation into the body of Christ and temple of the Holy Spirit, the Church thinks it appropriate that such a place, together with the chalice and pattern, are so holy that they should not be used for any inferior purpose. Changing uranium into nuclear fuel leaves behind material that remains radioactive for tens of thousands of years. The rite of dedication teaches us that a single Mass can make a building or an altar holy for as long as it exists. Of course, it is often necessary to celebrate the Mass and sacraments in places that cannot be reserved for worship and to use ordinary tables as altars; but it is so easy to underestimate the holiness of the Mass and sacraments if we do not give to those material things most associated with their celebration the kind of respect that human beings have naturally given to holy things throughout history. For this reason, it is better to consecrate the building that is used for Mass and to use it only for liturgical functions.  I have a gut feeling that something is wrong when we use a room or a table that has been used for Mass over a period of time for some other purpose. In saying this we recognize that, in practical terms, while the holiness of any Mass can consecrate a building, not every Mass does. There needs to be the intention of the bishop to dedicate the building exclusively for the liturgy for a dedication to take place, and the Mass needs to be celebrated for that purpose.

On entering the church and after greeting the people, the bishop solemnly blesses water which shall be used, he says, to remind the people of their baptism and a “symbol of the cleansing of these walls and this altar”. There we have the parallel between baptism and the sprinkling of holy water on the altar and walls. These are ‘purified’, cleansed of any harmful influences due to sin and dedicated to an unspecified Christian use. Sprinkling them with holy water is a way to lay claim to them on behalf of the Church. From now on they are to be used in the continual passing through death to life that is the very pulse beat and rythm of the body of Christ. After sprinkling, the meaning of this act is summed up as follows:

May God, the Father of mercies, dwell in this house of prayer. May the grace of the Holy Spirit cleanse us, for we are the temple of his presence. Amen

After the readings, the homily, and the Creed, the Litany of the Saints is said in place of the General Intercession. The next main part is the Prayer of Dedication which contains the epiclesis. This is a place in the liturgy where, normally, the purpose of the rite is expressed succinctly. In the epiclesis, what is the Church asking the Father in Jesus’ name? In the solemn prayer of dedication, the bishop first states the purpose of the occasion:

Father in heaven, source of holiness and true purpose (…) today we come before you, to dedicate to your lasting service this house of prayer, this temple of worship, this home in which we are nourished by your word and your sacraments.

It then says that this house reflects the mystery which is the Church. The Church is fruitful and holy by the blood of Christ. It is the Bride made radiant by his glory, a Virgin splendid in the wholeness of her faith, and Mother blessed by the power of the Holy Spirit. We have seen that these are titles given to Mary as a person in her relationship with Jesus. The Church too has thee titles The prayer continues to use metaphor to describe the Church. It is a vineyard with branches all over the world and reaching up to heaven. The Church is a temple, God’s dwelling place on earth, made up of living stones, with Jesus Christ as the corner stone. The Church is a city set on a mountain, a beacon to the whole world, bright with the glory of the Lamb.

Now we come to the invocation (epiclesis) proper:

Lord, send our Spirit from heaven to make this church an ever-holy place, and this altar a ready table for the sacrifice of Christ.

It continues by asking that the sacraments celebrated here will be efficacious, that baptism will overwhelm sin and that the people will truly die to sin, that the people gathered round the altar may celebrate the memorial of the Paschal Lamb and be fed at the table of Christ’s word and Christ’s body. Then the perspective changes; and the prayer goes on to ask that what happens here will have a world-wide effect. It asks that the Eucharist, which is the prayer of the Church, “resound through heaven and earth as a plea for the world’s salvation”. It asks that through it the poor may find justice and the oppressed liberation. It then goes on to ask:

From here may the whole world clothed in the dignity of children of God, enter with gladness your city of peace.

This is a dimension of the Christian life little taught at an ordinary parish level. It asks that as we approach the heavenly Jerusalem with the blood of Christ and pass through the veil which is the body of Christ into the presence of the Father, we may take the whole human race with us. We are Catholics, not just for ourselves but for the salvation of the world, and the unity of the Church is an effective sign of the unity of the human race in the eyes of God The prayer ends with a doxology and the people answer, “Amen”.
Orthodox anointing/dedication of an altar (5 mins)

Next comes the anointing of the altar and the walls of the church with chrism.    In the Eastern churches, the altar is often called the “throne” which recalls God’s presence in the Holy of Holies on the “throne of mercy” or “mercy seat”.   Here is an ancient prayer at the altar, originally in Aramaic, the language of Our Lord:

“Before the glorious throne of Thy majesty, my Lord, and the high and exalted seat of Thy honour and the awesome judgement seat of the power of Thy love, and the absolving altar which Thy will has established and the place where Thy honour dwells, we, Thy people and the sheep of Thy pasture, with thousands of Cherubim which sing halleluiahs to Thee, ten thousand Seraphim and Archangels which hallow Thee, do kneel and worship and confess and glorify Thee at all times, O Lord of all, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for ever. Amen.

 Symeon of Thessalonica wrote of the anointing of the altar:

The Altar is perfected through Holy Chrism.  A  prophetic hymn is chanted, signifying the incoming presence and praise of God.  “The Lord comes,” says the Bishop, referring to Christ’s First and Second Coming, and the continuous presence of the Spirit with us. …Since the Chrism is poured out in the name of Christ our God, and the Table represents Him Who was buried therein, it is anointed with Chrism; and it becomes Holy Chrism for it receives the Grace of the Spirit. And for this reason, as we have said, the “Alleluia” is chanted, for God dwells in there; and the Altar becomes the workshop of the Gifts of the Spirit. For on it the Awesome and Mystical Sacraments are celebrated: the ordination of priests, the most Holy Chrism, and the Gospel is placed thereon, and beneath it the Holy Relics of the Martyrs are deposited. Thus this table becomes an Altar of Christ, and a Throne of Glory, and the dwelling-place of God, and the Tomb and Grave of Christ and a place of Rest.
Prayer of Dedication
21. The celebration of the eucharist is the most important and the one necessary rite for the dedication of an altar. Nevertheless, in accordance with the universal tradition of the Church in both East and West, a special prayer of dedication is also said. This prayer is a
sign of the intention to dedicate the altar to the Lord for all times and a petition for his blessing.

Rites of Anointing, Incensing, Covering, and Lighting the Altar

22. The rites of anointing, incensing, covering, and lighting the altar express in visible signs several aspects of the invisible work that the Lord accomplishes through the Church in its
celebration of the divine mysteries, especially the eucharist.
a) Anointing of the altar: The anointing with chrism makes the altar a symbol of Christ, who, before all others, is and is called ‘The Anointed One’; for the Father anointed him with the Holy Spirit and constituted him the High Priest so that on the altar of his body he might offer the sacrifice of his life for the salvation of all.
b) Incense is burned on the altar to signify that Christ’s sacrifice, there perpetuated in mystery, ascends to God as an odour of sweetness, and also to signify that the people’s prayers rise up pleasing and acceptable, reaching the throne of God.20
c) The covering of the altar indicates that the Christian altar is the altar of the eucharistic sacrifice and the table of the Lord; around it priests and people, by one and the same rite but with a difference of function, celebrate the memorial of Christ’s death and resurrection and partake of his supper. For this reason the altar is prepared as the table of the sacrificial banquet and adorned as for a feast.

 Thus the dressing of the altar clearly signifies that it is the Lord’s table at which all God’s people joyously meet to be refreshed with divine food, namely, the body and blood of Christ sacrificed.
d) The lighting of the altar teaches us that Christ is ‘a light to enlighten the nations’;21 his brightness shines out in the Church and through it in the whole human family.

D. Celebration of the Eucharist

23. After the altar has been prepared, the bishop celebrates the eucharist, the principal and the most ancient part of the whole rite,22 because the celebration of the eucharist is in the closest harmony with the rite of the dedication of an altar:
For the celebration of the eucharistic sacrifice achieves the end for which the altar was erected and expresses this end by particularly clear signs.

The altar is the place where what is depicted in  icons is present for real.    A crucifix depicts Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, while on the altar is the sacrifice itself.   The Blessed Virgin, angels and saints are depicted in icons, but they are present at every Mass, joining with us in crying “Holy, holy, holy.”.   Everything that has a visual dimension can be depicted in icons, but the altar is the throne of Him who cannot be depicted.   For this reason our attention is not directed towards the structure of the altar, but to its surface and the empty space above it.  For this reason the empty space should not be cluttered up with unnecessary books or furniture - it is not a bench to put things on - so that priest and people will have a clear, uninterrupted view of the paten and chalice which are central to the whole action of the Mass.

This cannot happen without the Holy Spirit. As the anointing with chrism is done in silence, we must go to the epiclesis of the consecration of chrism on Maundy Thursday to look further into the significance of the anointing.

Only in the second consecratory prayer over the chrism is there any mention of the intended effect of anointing places and things. It asks:

May the splendour of holiness shine on the world from every place and thing signed with this oil.

The “splendour of holiness” is nothing less than the effect on people and things when God makes his presence felt. When the walls and altar are anointed, the bishop in the name of Christ and the Church is asking the Father to send the Spirit on them so that the church may become a place of contact between God and the world. The “splendour of holiness” may shine from the church building as a reflection of the “glory of the Lamb” which shines from the Church made up of living stones, so that the building will become a true symbol of the living Church.

“The nations will walk by its light. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” This can only happen if God takes the initiative; but the bishop anoints them with the confidence that the Father will answer this prayer positively. The church and the altar have become a place of meeting with Christ where we contact him, because he takes the initiative, using this sacred space as his instrument through the power of the Spirit. We enter into the splendour of holiness when we enter a church, and the altar becomes the central point of focus when we celebrate. It is a challenge to the architect and to those who are responsible for the lay-out of the church building, as well as those who organise and celebrate the liturgy, to help people realise the holiness of this place of meeting between God and his people.

Other Parts of the Church

The General Instructions from the Roman Missal have more to say about a church.. There are other focal points in a church, though they all direct our attention eventually to the altar. The first is the ambo which is the desk from which the word of God is proclaimed. The sacredness of this proclamation recalls God’s proclamation of the Law on Mount Sinai and God speaking to Isaiah from his throne in heaven. When the reader says, at the end of the reading, “The word of God”, he is making an enormous claim, the impact of which is normally lost, because it is dismissed as mere ritual. He is saying that GOD is speaking,, as really and as immediately as in any theophany of the Old Testament. When reading the word of God, the reader has lent his voice to Christ who is speaking “whenever the word of God is read in church”. To underline this fact, in the General Instructions for the Roman Missal (272) it lays down that the ambo like the altar, should be permanent and fixed to the ground; it must not be used for any other purpose, except for responsorial psalms and the Prayers of the Faithful who are praying in Christ’s name. The priest is not to read the notices, the monitor is not to makes his admonition, nor the choirmaster direct the choir from the same ambo that is used for the word of God. This ambo must be where everybody can see and hear. Evidently, everything must be done not to give the impression those who read are only fulfilling a ritual, or only reading a not very interesting text, simply because it is written down. Reading the word of God is a ministry and should be reserved to those who have been designated and who know what they are doing and why they are doing it and are prepared spiritually for the task.

Let us now summarize what the liturgy tells about the church building. Firstly, the true temple, altar, priest and sacrifice is Christ, and, by extension, his body the Church. The true Church is the community which we enter by baptism and which is formed into the body of Christ by the Eucharist. The church building is an icon of the Church. It gets its name for this reason.  It gets its sacred character from the fact that the word of God is heard there and the sacraments celebrated there, and, most especially, because it is the place where the Church gathers for the Eucharist. By using it we participate in the mystery it represents.   However, this dignity does not belong to the building permanently until it is consecrated by the bishop who blesses it with water and anoints it with oil, an analogy with baptism and confirmation. When something is blessed with holy water, it is the Church and Christ through the Church laying claim to whatever is blessed, without necessarily determining its use. The blessing with water is an invitation to those taking part to renew their baptism and is used to purify the building from any contamination by sin. This blessing is also used when the church is merely blest. It is the anointing that gives the church its permanent function. Consecration of a church is not a sacrament because it is of ecclesiastical origin, but it is sacramental, in that the gesture of anointing expresses both the Church’s petition and God’s response. The bishop consecrates, but it is the Holy Spirit who makes the church holy, claiming it on behalf of the risen Jesus who is Lord of heaven and earth. Anyone who enters it with the right dispositions shares in the mystery of the Church. Moreover, the building speaks to the world of God by its very presence in the world. Of course, if it looks like a factory or a space ship, it probably won’t be able to fulfil that function, but that is its function.

Within the church, the altar is the only piece of furniture blessed with water and anointed with oil. It should be fixed and in a prominent place, so that all eyes are drawn to it. In a church of the Latin Rite, it is the only object that is so blessed and anointed. On its surface, the Holy Trinity is manifested in the consecration of the bread and wine, the Church is identified with Christ in his sacrifice to the Father, and is taken up through Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension into the presence of the Father, passing through the veil of the Holy of Holies by communion in Christ’s body. It is from the altar that the people are sent forth to be witnesses to “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands." 

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