Through the sacrament of holy baptism, the Christian receives new life in Jesus Christ. At the moment of our incorporation into the mystical body of Christ, the Church, the ‘old man’ is crucified with Christ ‘in order that our body of sin might be destroyed’, and the new man emerges (Rom. 6:6). Going down into the water of the font we see nothing, but rising from it we find ourselves in the new day and new light of the resurrection life. As Saint Cyril of Jerusalem puts it, ‘That one moment was your death and your birth; that saving water was both your grave and your mother’.
Reconciled to God through this configuration to the eternal life of Christ, the Christian is restored to the fullness of man’s nature: of what it means to be human. If Jesus Christ is perfectus Deus, perfectus homo, then through our incorporation into his life we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity. What we forfeited in the Garden of Eden through sin, the first act of disobedience, is restored to us by means of the perfect obedience of the Son to the Father – the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary.
Nevertheless, by our disordered inclinations, our concupiscence, we walk away from this covenant relationship when we sin. When we choose our will over that of God, we separate ourselves once more, by our own free will, from the grace and love that he offers us unconditionally. God never turns his back on us, but when we turn our back on him, we reject the life he has bestowed on us in baptism, and return once more to our wayward selves, seeking foolhardy satisfaction from our earthly desires.
God’s unswerving faithfulness, however, means that through the sacramental power given to his mediators and priests, that covenant can once more be restored in his people. By the confession of sin, with true contrition and right intent to avoid sin in the future, we are offered the chance to repair the relationship with God begun at our baptism and so, through sacramental reconciliation, become one in Christ in the perfect communion of the Most Holy Trinity.
That communion with Christ is, of course, also the communion of the Church. Our incorporation into Christ in baptism marks our participation in the perfect self-giving relationship of love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And so, when we sin, we separate ourselves from God in Christ, and cut ourselves from his mystical body. This is why the Church teaches us that anyone conscious of grave sin must receive sacramental absolution before receiving Holy Communion (CCC §1385). More so, this is why our full, active, and conscious participation in the sacred liturgy is reliant on our communion with Christ and the Church, in order that we might offer ourselves in the perfect offering of God the Son, to God the Father, in the unity of God the Holy Spirit.
If the Church is, then, the vehicle of our communion with God, then representations of the Church must reflect this perfect life. We speak of Our Blessed Lady as the Mother and Type of the Church. She is the one so perfectly united to the will of God that she was preserved from the stain of original sin, and so assumed body and soul into heaven at the end of her earthly life. As by Eve’s disobedience we lost paradise, so through Mary’s obedience that paradise is found once more. As the medieval carol puts it, Nova! Nova! Ave fit ex Eva.
More than that, though, our physical church buildings should be places where we glimpse the paradise which is the rightful home of those united to Christ. Just as communion with Christ and the Church is the way to salvation and eternal life, so that life – for those who rejoice in that communion through grace – has already begun. Our church buildings, the very places where we come to begin in the ‘here and now’ the offering of the eternal worship of heaven, should be clear signs of the heavenly kingdom, and filled with human indicators of the restored state of our divine relationship with God.
Dr Denis McNamara of the Liturgical Institute at Mundelein Seminary in Illinois has, for some time now, been expressing this principle rather well. In his presentations, Dr McNamara reminds us that because we are in an ‘in-between time’ – after the fall, but before reaching the heavenly Jerusalem – the Church’s sacraments are the means by which we receive God’s grace. They are efficacious signs of what, in the fullness of life in eternity, will be given to those who share in the beatific vision. Through the sacraments we participate in the life of Christ, the life of the Most Holy Trinity and the heavenly liturgy, in this earthly and mortal life. As Saint Thomas Aquinas says of that most sublime sacrament, the Most Holy Eucharist, in this the memory of Christ’s passion is renewed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.
This sacramental economy, Dr McNamara suggests, is where church architecture finds its true place. We who are ‘mourning and weeping in this valley of tears’ as a result of the fall, look forward to the place ‘where sorrow and pain are no more; neither sighing, but life everlasting’ (Kontakion for the Dead; Rev. 21: 4). As the sacraments in this life point us toward the next, so authentic sacramental signs, such as the place and means of our worship, point us toward what they foreshadow.
Here we can propose two principle concepts which are, in effect, one. First, that the church building must evoke the kingdom of heaven. If the celebration of the sacred liturgy is our participation in the life of the Most Holy Trinity, beginning and ending in the name of the triune God, with the Priest as the alter Christus offering the sacrifice on our behalf in the Eucharistic Prayer addressed to the Father, then the place where this supreme prayer takes place should bear a resemblance, in earthly terms, to the divine reality of heaven. If we are to call God down to earth in the little space of our churches and parishes, then we should prepare well for the awesome action that there takes place, and do all that we can to make a fitting space for this divine action.
Secondly, because that heavenly representation is the fulfillment of the act of reconciliation begun and ended in the sacrifice of Christ, so the church building should also represents the restored state of man with God, and the garden of paradise which is once more our native home. The church building is, according to Saint Germanus, ‘an earthly heaven in which the super-celestial God dwells and walks about’, just as he did in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:8). This is why the capitals of church pillars flower into leaves, sweet-smelling incense and flowers fill the church with their scent, and the tree of life – the cross crowned with the sacrificial body of Christ – is enthroned with prominence, taking the place of the tree which led to our fall. As the hymn, Pange Lingua, reminds us: ‘Eating of the tree forbidden, man had sunk in Satan’s snare, when our pitying creator did this second tree prepare; destined, many ages later, that first evil to repair’.
In these sacramental signs of our redemption, too, we are not limited to simplistic symbols. The ornate gold crucifix is not simply a showy, poor rendition of the simple wood of the tree of the cross, but a restored, redeemed, and sanctified version. The florid and elaborate polyphony and chant of sacred music is not an excessive opportunity for performance, but the ordering of man’s talents and skills by bringing dissonance into perfect harmony, and chaos into cosmos. So church architecture must point not to the confusion and disorder of this world, but the restored order which is ours through the supreme sacrifice of Jesus Christ and our incorporation into his life through baptism.
All creation and nature is redeemed in Christ, and so every aspect of the sacred liturgy is touched by this perfection. Types and shadows have their ending in Christ, the reality of heaven is set before us to come, and we are now in a time of image. That is to say, in the words of Saint Paul, now we see through a glass, darkly; but in the time to come we shall God face to face (1 Cor. 13:12). Our churches should reflect this theological principle, not as museums or memorials to man’s success, but as living signs of the hope of heaven, calling Christians to live the life that Christ demands of his brothers and sisters, his sons and daughters, and calling others to the perfect joy and fulfillment that comes from knowing him, and seeking to live in his mercy and truth.