Inspiring Hope: Encountering Christ in Church Architecture

Authored by Dr. Denis McNamara in Issue #1.2 of The Catechetical Review

Catechesis is usually understood as a gift given from mouth to ear in teaching and preaching. But catechesis can also proceed according to the sense of sight, by way of church architecture. Such a visual catechesis can immediately impact adults and children alike. So many of us know what we “like” in church architecture, but a catechetical view of church architecture—one which sees it as the gospel for the eyes—requires understanding the church building as an architectural image of Christ’s Mystical Body.

Scripture describes the living members of the Church as forming the image of Christ’s Mystical Body, but architectural language is then immediately employed: this Body is called “God’s building” and “God’s temple” (1 Pet 2:5, 1 Cor 3:9-17). Just as the Temple of Solomon signified Christ by way of foreshadowing, so today’s churches signify Christ by way of fulfillment and sacramental foretaste. In either Old Testament Temple or Christian church, the Person revealed through architecture is Christ, the New Temple. So to encounter a church that reveals the radiance of the New Heaven and the New Earth is to encounter Christ by means of a building, which is both sacramental and catechetical. This encounter—both with the ear and with the eye—inspires hope because the object of hope is a future good that is difficult to obtain: becoming a citizen of heaven in union with the Blessed Trinity in the realized kingdom of God.

Temple, God’s Building and the Mystical Body
In a well-known passage in the Gospel of John, Christ says “destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn 2:21). Those around him presume he is speaking of the great Jerusalem Temple, but the writer quickly explains: “he was speaking of the temple of his body.” So Christ’s body is compared not just to any building but to one that was the center of Jewish worship, precisely because it was the dwelling place of God with humanity.[i] To be in the temple was to be in God’s presence. Earthly space and time were left behind as one entered an architectural image of the New Garden replete with carved images of palm trees, flowers, vegetables, and angels covered in gold. Beyond the great veil was the architectural rendition of heaven itself in the Holy of Holies, the place of God’s throne and abiding presence with his people.[ii]

Temple worship, as such, becomes obsolete after the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, because Christ’s own body became the new place of God’s presence. Christ offers perfect worship simultaneously being priest, victim, and place of God’s presence: so indeed the new temple is his body. But the character of the Jerusalem Temple nonetheless remains critically important for what it reveals about Christ. In the time of Christ, the Temple Mount was a dazzling complex famous for its stones that captured the apostles’ attention in all three synoptic gospels (Mk 13:1; Lk 21:5; Mt 24:1). References to stones in Scripture are more numerous than can be recounted here,[iii] but the intent is clear: the temple was an assemblage of costly, precious and holy stones which revealed to the world the place where God dwelt with his people. These stones would soon come to be understood as architectural renditions of people assembled into the image of Christ. Put simply, in biblical symbolism, stones are people—the living stones—and the more precious, cut and polished the stones, the more they signify those same people transformed by grace and assembled as Christ’s body, the new temple.

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This article is from The Catechetical Review (Online Edition ISSN 2379-6324) and may be copied for catechetical purposes only. It may not be reprinted in another published work without the permission of The Catechetical Review by contacting editor@catechetics.com

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