Vol. XX, No. 4
What Does a Church Building Mean?
by Denis McNamara
A church building is first and foremost an image of Christ and His Mystical Body, with all that this claim implies.
In the Old Testament, the Temple was a symbolic building composed of stones quarried by priests, which formed the place where God dwelt with His people. Its interior was of mythical time and space, an image of the glorified earth, and even heaven itself. In the New Testament, the Christian community is called “God’s building” because the people are now members of the Mystical Body of Christ, the place where God dwells with humanity.
The church building, then, is a sacrament of God reconciled with humanity, as the Catechism tells us (No. 1180). It is made up of many members, such as bricks, stones, and steel beams, all arranged within an eschatological glory to provide a place where God dwells with humanity. Just as we say the altar “is” Christ, so we can say that the church building is a great sacrament of Christ’s many members asembled in their heavenly glory. Just like the heavenly liturgy, the church building is centered on Christ, glorified, perfected, filled with angels and saints, radiant with light and an image of the new heaven and new earth.
Traditionally designed church buildings are generally made up of two primary parts: sanctuary and nave. The sanctuary is the architectural and artistic image of heaven, which explains why the altar and tabernacle are usually located there, and the rear wall of the apse is traditionally the place of a great liturgical image of Christ in glory. The nave is the image of the restored earth, no longer subject to the effects of the Fall. Together they form a unit where heaven and earth “kiss” at the point where the nave and sanctuary meet, just as a priest reaches across from sanctuary to nave to distribute communion — the moment when God and human beings “kiss” in intimate union. So if you look at a well-ornamented church, it is very common to see plant motifs all around in sculpture and paintings, indicating the restored earth.…
The job of the liturgical artist is to use the matter of creation — paint, stone, gold, glass, whatever — to reveal the “heavenly realities.” … So the artist’s job is to use matter to reveal and make present the heavenly realities.… I think we are on the verge of the time when people will take the sacramental role of art much more seriously. It is really a great time to be building churches! We should thank God that we are the inheritors of the great scholars of the Liturgical Movement and the insights of the Council.
Denis McNamara is an architectectural theologian, the author of three books, and a member of the faculty of the Liturgical Institute of the University of Saint Mary of the Lake (Mundelein). The above is an excerpt from an interview in Tidings (Spring 2014), the newsletter of the Liturgical Institute.
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