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Sanctuary of Saint John the Evangelist, Indianapolis, IN

Sanctuary of Saint John the Evangelist, Indianapolis, IN

In his apostolic letter on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the promulgation of the constitution on the sacred liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, Saint John Paul II wrote, ‘the Liturgy is the privileged place for the encounter of Christians with God and the one whom he has sent, Jesus Christ’. In the sacred liturgy, then, the praying Church on earth encounters her Lord and God in a unique way as she is caught up in the eternal worship of heaven – the selfless love-giving relationship between the persons of the Most Blessed Trinity.

It is for this reason that we can describe the sacred liturgy, in the words of Father Faber of the Oratory, as ‘the most beautiful thing this side of heaven’. And it is to emphasize this reality that the sacred liturgy bids us join the singing of the Sanctus, together with the saints and angels in the Church’s hymn of praise, a Church present both in earth and in heaven. Thus we can say that the worship of the New Jerusalem is, in the authentic celebration of the sacred liturgy, presented to us who still labour below. In the sacred liturgy, we say, the curtain between heaven and earth is pulled back for us to see into the fullness of the life to which we are called.

To reflect this reality, and to allow that perfect worship of heaven to permeate more freely our earthly offering, the Judaeo-Christian tradition developed a number of tangible expressions that, whilst never ends in themselves, nevertheless point the human person toward the glories they seek to represent. Just as the Jerusalem temple sought to portray in stone the splendour and majesty of Almighty God, the Christian church has, throughout the centuries, sought to show the world that the restoration and culmination of the worship of the temple – indeed, the fullness of all sacrifice and worship – is now found alone in the one true sacrifice of Christ, represented for us in the Eucharistic offering.

Thus the Christian Church, in both physical and spiritual ways, has always sought to demonstrate this new and restored life, the life of those baptized into the mystery of Christ’s redeeming love. The fallen garden of Eden – the place of our demise – is restored in Christ, the new Adam, and so the flowers and plants in church architecture, and in the adornment of shrines and altars, are a sign of the new creation which now exists in the new covenant, a covenant sealed by the Blood of the Lamb in the sacrifice of Calvary. So also the worship of the Jerusalem temple finds a new and perfected expression in authentic Christian liturgy, with the dwelling-place of the Most High God – the tabernacle – restored to the sanctuary, and the temple itself rebuilt as a living temple with living stones in the person of Jesus Christ and those who share his risen life.

And these are more than simply symbols from a former time now lost on a generation incapable or unwilling to rediscover or be moved by their purpose. Just as Christians have, for centuries, venerated icons as sacred windows into the reality of the event or person they depict – not simply pieces of art, but lenses into the world to come – so also we find in art and architecture, indeed in music and in ritual, not merely buildings or paintings, songs or actions, but sacramental signs of the eternal worship into which the Christian enters in the celebration of the sacred liturgy. These are not simply temporal or even outdated modes of communicating a dead message, but essential and tested signs and symbols that demonstrate unchanging and unchangeable realities about the true nature of the human person and his relationship with the living God.

In his examination of the essential questions concerning ecclesiastical art and architecture at last week’s colloquium, Denis McNamara sought to lay out some of these fundamental foundations for the construction of this premise in the vocabulary of architecture. He spoke of the necessity of a sacred register in church buildings; one that points beyond a simply functional purpose, toward a more profound, almost ontological reality.

In the arrangement of the Christian sanctuary, particularly, he pointed to the important tradition of depicting the vision of heaven around the liturgical altar as a means of reminding the Church of the heavenly worship into which, as the members of the Body of Christ united to the head, she enters in the sacred liturgy. In the west, this is done by the depiction of angels and saints, standing around the throne – the centrally-located tabernacle and dwelling-place of the Lord. It is done by floral patterns and depictions of new life, that show the regeneration inherent in baptism and the restoration of Man to the garden of paradise, forfeited through original sin in the fall and restored to us through the sacrifice of Christ. These signs point us beyond mere earthly concerns to the deepest desire of the human heart – heaven; our native homeland, to which we are called by our incorporation into the life of Christ.

And if these architectural features point us toward the new creation of heaven, then they must also point us away from the old creation. Saint Paul’s insistence, throughout his writings, on the renewal of the human person in Christ must be made tangible, not only in the life of the individual Christian, but in the fabric of our worship and the essence of our praise. All things, but most especially those which we use in the celebration of the sacred liturgy, must point to the new creation of the heavenly realm as a sign of that to which we are called, and that into which we enter in the Church’s liturgical prayer. Thus, as Denis McNamara reminded us, we are called from chaos to cosmos; from disorder to order, as from sin and death to truth and life.

Chief amongst these signs of the new creation – the cosmic ordering of chaos that comes from the perfection of all nature, redeemed as it is through the sacrifice of Christ – is the life-giving cross, the crucifix enthroned on the liturgical altar. The properly oriented celebration of the sacred liturgy – Christocentric, not anthropocentric, as Dr Marht reminded us – ensures this right-ordering and articulates the reality of the heavenly liturgy in an indisputable way. It is for this reason that Pope Benedict XVI, as Cardinal Ratzinger and as Bishop of Rome, spoke of the need to restore the prominent altar crucifix as a true reminder of the orient – the east, the new Jerusalem, the new creation, the source of the rising sun, and the new day who is Jesus Christ. It is for this reason that our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has said, ‘[The cross] is not only an ornament that we always put in churches, on the altar; it is not only a symbol that should distinguish us from others. The cross is a mystery: the mystery of the love of God who humbles himself, who empties himself to save us from our sins’.

And this new order, this new creation, cannot be limited simply to architectural features. The Church has consistently expressed this renewal in the register of her prayer, in hieratic language and phrases, in the vesture of her ministers and faithful on the Lord’s day, and in the timeless and ethereal music with which she offers her Lord the praise that is his due. Dr William Marht’s lecture, particularly, reminded us that in sacred music the new order of beauty and goodness and truth – the order of the cosmos over the disorder of chaos – a vocabulary which is instantly recognizable as ‘other’ finds a robust expression. The chant and polyphony, man-made and yet as remarkable and identifiably sacred as a great church or cathedral, point us to the hierarchical ordering of all things in Christ – an ordering that does not mimic human servitude, but presents man with friendship in Christ, and the hope of glorification in the mystery of God’s eternal love.

May our churches and our worship be ever-clearer signs of this truth, that our deepest longings may be satisfied not by the mere human action of our ritual and song, but by the fullness of the reality they represent: Qui vitam sine termino nobis donet in patria.