THE POINT OF IT ALL
I want to start this evening by laying bare the very essence of my talk, the core of it all, in as few words as possible, so that you keep in mind the essential point I’m trying to make.
I want you to pretend you’re a dummy and you need to repeat to yourself the essential takeway of this talk, and from there, I want you to see me as the windbag I am, going on in detail about a very simple and essential point.
Here;s the point: Keep your eyes on God. It’s all about God.
That’s my point. Thank you for coming tonight. On your way out, remember to keep repeating that to yourself: Keep your eyes on God. It’s all about God.
Now, for those of you who want to stay, or who have nothing else to do, I’ll keep talking in some detail – but, keep repeating this truth to yourself.
Here goes: We Catholics are the direct descendants of the Hebrews, God’s glorious Chosen People. God shepherded, God instructed, God chastised and, above all, God loved them completely.
And they responded. They welcomed His parenting, they thanked Him for His beneficence, they acted to please Him – sometimes those desires got sidetracked into rules, rules, and more rules. But at the core was always the desire to render justice and gratitude to God’s lordship and love.
So in their actions of worship, they were led by Yahweh to seek high places: for instance, Abraham prepared to sacrifice his own son Isaac on the hilltop of Mount Moriah, while Moses received the Ten Commandments atop Mount Zion.
And then they were led to build successive temples of worship on Mount Moriah, the highest point in what became Jerusalem. These were large, solid structures designed to last and sufficiently rich in decoration as to indicate the glory of God.
The Temple at Jerusalem was divided into different sections, with the visitor moving successively from the outer court into the main part of the Temple, beyond which, in a space separated from all, resided the Holy of Holies.
As I said, we Catholics are the spiritual descendants of the Jews, the followers of the Jewish leader, Jesus of Nazareth, whom we know to be the very Son of God.
He worshipped in the Temple at Jerusalem. At age 12, He chose to stay behind when His parents were returning home to Nazareth from a pilgrimage, staying in the Temple precincts and instructing the religious leaders on how properly to live their relationship with God the Father.
He knew that His time on earth would be brought to a close and the fulfillment of His mission to save the world would occur when He made a final visit to the Temple, chasing the moneychangers from the outer precincts of the Temple.
“Scripture has it, He said, My house is meant for a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.
He was teaching in the temple area from day to day. The chief priests and scribes were looking for a way to destroy him, as were the leaders of the people.” (Luke 19: 46-47)
So the Temple has always carried enormous significance in the story of God’s ongoing efforts to save His beloved, hard-headed people.
And then, just as Christ predicted, once His work was done, that same Temple, with its location, its layout, and its riches, was destroyed, under the battering rams of the Roman legions, never to be rebuilt.
And with its destruction, the Jewish religion changed forever, unable to render sacrifice to God, and subsisting, to this day, on the local synagogue, and dreaming that somehow, someday the Temple might be rebuilt.
Well, we Catholics know that the work of the Temple does continue on, that sacrifice to God the Almighty continues without cease – and not in just one select place, but throughout the world, in the successor Temples of God : the Catholic churches.
And therein lies the clue for proper church architecture: God’s work of repairing the relationship with His people that Adam had broken was done through the Hebrews, the Jews, and culminated in the sending of His very Son into the world – and not just into any part of the world, but the Jewish part – and there fixing everything once and for all, through His sacrifice of Himself for our sins.
And that sacrifice was perfect, flawless, incomparable, complete, unrepeatable, unending, incapable of wearing out or even of wearing thin. I could go on.
And one more thing: it continues day after day after day, throughout the world, in the sacrifice of the Mass.
And it does so inside the church building. That church building exists for only one purpose – and what a purpose!
It exists so that the people of God can worship their eternal heavenly Father through the Holy Eucharist, which is the ongoing sacrifice of Calvary – the perfect, flawless, incomparable, complete, unrepeatable, unending sacrifice.
Let me repeat – again. (I told you this talk had a very simple point but one so essential that it needs repeating)
The church as a building exists only for God. It exists so that the people of God can gather round God’s altar, worship Him, and experience the continuing sacrifice of Calvary.
This is why we don’t go to a garage for Mass.
This is why we don’t call our churches “meeting houses”.
This is why our churches aren’t entertainment centers with huge TV screens, stadium seating, rock bands down front and coffee shops out in the lobby.
It’s not about us: it’s about God! (See, I told you you could have left at the beginning!)
So, with that in mind, we have to ask ourselves, Okay, building a parish church is not going to be a simple task, driven by the bottom line, so how’s the proper way to go about this??
Thankfully, we are part of a church – the only one actually founded by Christ Himself – you can look it up; it’s a historical fact. And this church we belong to has thought about its places of worship for 2,000 years.
That’s a lot longer than an architect goes to school for.
Now, we have to make an exception for the first 200 years or so of Catholic history, those years when Christianity was an outlawed religion in the Roman Empire. Actually, it wasn’t until the year 312 that Catholicism was officially legalized, but there were long years in between persecutions when the Roman government – staffed more and more as the years went on with Catholics – years when the government left the Church alone.But I digress.
So for generations after Christ died on the Cross, Catholics gathered in secret so as to worship together. They couldn’t dare build a church worthy of the name, or else they would probably have been slaughtered en masse by the Roman authorities.
Butonce Catholicism was legalized, and, to boot, also gained the government’s support, it immediately turned its attention to the matter of the proper design of its churches – those successors to the Temple at Jerusalem.
Immediately, the Catholic Church laid down the three essential elements that need to be in a church. Here they are, so pay attention, there will be a quiz:
1) There must be verticality
2) There must be permanence, and
3) There must be iconography.
When we talk about verticality, think of Heaven, which of course is where we want to be for eternity. So it is that, in the liturgy used at the dedication of a new church, we quote St. John’s vision of the heavenly Jerusalem, in the Book of Revelation, where he says, in Chapter 21 [2-4]:
“And I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of Heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold the dwelling of God with men, and He will dwell with them; and they will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and death shall be no more; neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
“…coming down out of Heaven…”– that’s says height, verticality.
And there’s something built into us that makes us pause, or even gasp, at the sight of a high structure, whether a cliff, a tree, or a building. It’s a universal human reaction.
The Romans appreciated it and built their most important buildings, especially public buildings, to be tall. This form they called the basilica – the king’s house (even though the Romans didn’t officially have kings).
When Catholicism was legalized, the emperor Constantine – who died a Christian – offered a number of basilicas to the Church for its use. And the Church never looked back.
Now imagine if verticality were not an essential factor. Can you imagine St. Patrick’s cathedral in New York with a 12-foot ceiling? Or how about St. Peter’s Basilica with an 8 foot ceiling? It is to laugh. Look about here in this very church, and imagine St. Joseph’s with a low ceiling.
Such a trait would diminish, would cheapen the effect that the act of worship would instill in the congregation. With a low ceiling, as we watched Father raise up his hands in prayer during Mass, we wouldn’t be listening to or joining in the words he uttered; instead, we’d be watching his hands, hoping they didn’t scrape the ceiling just over him..
Verticality – height – emphasizes the glory of God in His Heavens, so far above us as to be unreachable – were it not for the sacrifice of His Son…
This is also why the ideal placement for a church is in an elevated spot in a town – as St. Joseph’s is placed atop Cabbage Hill, or as St. Mary’s looms over Prince and Vine Streets. It’s the image of Mount Moriah, of Mount Zion recurring in our own day.
Verticality is so important in driving home the point of God and His house being so far above the mundane that we find in so many churches the addition of a steeple, that last lunge by the church building to reach up into God’s realm, hoping metaphorically to stretch out as much as possible to touch the hand of God, as in Michelangelo’s painting in the Sistine Chapel of the creation of Adam.
We know, after all, that God is stretching out His hand towards us: the steeple indicates our response to His loving action.
Verticality: our medieval forebears understood this clearly, and they made it their goal to reach up and up as far as they could go in their churches, until they could go no farther and, with the most famous example being the cathedral at Beauvais, in northern France, they raised their ceilings until the structure could take no more – and a collapse would ensue.
Failure, yes, but what a wonderful Christian lesson these anonymous builders and master masons of the 13th and 14th centuries left for us: as Christians, we should all be striving to rise and rise in our devotion to God, even to the point of exhaustion. God, after all, went all the way to death itself in His devotion to us.
The second element in a church must be permanence.
Permanence reflects God’s eternal truth, and the eternal rewards that await God’s faithful followers.
The way you transmit this idea in the structure of a church is in the quality of its layout and elements. The builders give the church stout walls, fine, expensive building materials like marble or travertine, all arranged so as to give the clear message to one and all: we’re not going anywhere. This relationship of the building to its people and to God and His people is solid and permanent.
Protestant denominations often have a different view on this matter. Many of their groups use the most economical materials and methods to put up a building, and, at least early in their development, often make the structure multifunctional. Tuesday and Thursday it’s basketball for the kids; Fridays it’s time for moms and their babies, and Sunday morning, it’s a church.
I would respectfully argue that this approach of cost-cutting, multipurpose rooms, while well-intentioned, even inadvertently gives God short shrift.
It’s a modern phenomenon, the product of a peculiarly American spirit of go-go-go utilitarianism – a spirit that has made us rich and powerful, but, we know that in God’s eyes, rich and powerful turns to rust and dust. What lasts is relationship with God. And a church should help to focus our admittedly weak eyes on that alone.
It’s all about God.
By the way, this spirit has infected many Catholics, as well. I can understand how it happens: we live in a Protestant culture, and we’re liable to pick up some of its attitudes, just through osmosis.
Plus, speaking of permanence, how many times have we seen parishes evaporate. One generation, it’s a growing, thriving beehive of spiritual activity and true devotion, and the next, nobody’s home; everybody’s moved away, either to the suburbs or across the country, leaving the poor church building behind, a grand, soaring glorious example of the power of faith expressed in stone and stained glass window. But now without a healthy congregation.
This can understandably lead people to say to themselves: what are we doing, pouring our money into a building that may last in its effectiveness for maybe a hundred years – maybe less, before it’s gutted and turned into a coffee shop with a framery in the back.
My response to that is: so you are okay with a parish that worships in a tin-roofed gymnasium-style building for 100 years?
The point I’m making, once again is: Keep your eyes on God; it’s all about God.
Any other viewpoint literally means we’ve taken our eyes off God, and when we take our eyes off God, we immediately return to looking at ourselves.
Our churches must radiate permanence.
The third and final element in a church, after verticality and permanence, is iconography.
It is very difficult for a church building to carry out its evangelizing work if it is bare of art or ornamentation.
Oh, it’s been tried on several occasions. Way back in the 8th century, Christians in Greece and what is now Turkey were seized with a fit of revulsion against iconography in churches, and they set about destroying as much as they could lay their hands on. The same thing happened again in the 16th and 17th centuries when Protestants of the Reformed, Calvinist bent took hammers out to smash Catholic art to smithereens.
They assumed that the average churchgoer was too stupid to understand that these statues and paintings were only representations, aids to devotion, and not idols with devilish powers of their own.
But these outbursts were fits, not reasoned doctrines, and they passed. Interestingly, in the immediate wake of the Second Vatican Council, there was a similar sweep to rid many churches of their artwork. I saw it myself in the chapel of the Catholic university I attended. A beautiful Gothic chapel was reduced to a blank room with an iron hoop above the altar (Communion table?) symbolizing unity – whatever that meant.
But art is a manifestation of a drive instilled in every one of us by God Himself. We seek – each of us – the transcendent, the idealized, the rapturous, because it can bring us closer to the author and embodiment of everything that is ideal and transcendent.
We live in a broken world, a world Adam and Eve broke through their original sin of self-centeredness. Art helps us to focus on something that, through its beauty and power, ultimately is rooted in God.
So those are the 3 elements that are essential to proper church architecture, because we’re not talking about a building per se– we’re talking about God. It’s all about God.
We happen to be blessed to be tonight in the nave of the church of St. Joseph, which parish is celebrating its 170th anniversary this year.
The nave, by the way, describes the main body of the church, where everyone sits, and which is separate from the narthex or vestibule at the entrance to the church and from the sanctuary, the Holy of Holies (remember the Temple at Jerusalem) which is separated by a railing from the nave, because it is there that the ultimate Sacrifice of Calvary continues in the Holy Eucharistic miracle.
The nave is a word that comes from the Latin navis, meaning ship. It has a double meaning, referring back to Noah’s Ark, which saved everyone on board from sure death by drowning, and referring to the Catholic Church, which is the Ark of Salvation, saving us from the fires of Hell.
Traditionally this means that, like the bottom of a ship, the roof of the church is never flat – in other words, a church is fashioned like an upside-down ship, or ark.
Talk of the nave is a perfect segue into a brief description of the iconography of St. Joseph’s church.
When you approach this church, the front doors, 3 of them – 3, as in the Trinity – are solid oak, and you climb a set of stairs, as though you were scaling a hill.
Of course, this is done on purpose. There is a message in this.
Recently, some churches have decided to go another route in this – they say it’s to make the church more welcoming and accessible. These parishes have installed glass dooways, on a flat level. Think shopping mall.
Above the doors are windows: the left door is surmounted by the letters “IHS” which stand for ‘Jesus’;
-the center door has above it the lamb (the symbol of Christ) resting on the Bible, and holding a banner with the cross displayed on it; and
– the right door has, again, a cross, with vines
In other words, as you are entering the church, you face Christ, Christ, Christ, left, right and center.
Inside the outer doors is the vestibule, or narthex, with another set of doors going into the church. And above this doorway is a quotation from the Old Testament, the Book of Genesis (28:17). The scene is Jacob resting in a deserted spot and dreaming of a ladder where angels are constantly climbing up and down. When he woke up, he declared: “This can be nothing other than the house of God.”
And with that you enter the church proper, you leave the Old Testament behind, and there, all around are scenes from the New Testament, and they all concern Christ.
The nave itself is 90 feet long from the inner door to the communion rail, and 60 feet wide.
The columns that frame your view up the main aisle to the imposing high altar are 41 feet high, giving you that verticality so necessary for a church, and they alternate between being round and square, so as to preclude any boredom in your viewing.
The architectural style is neo-Romanesque – I would add more neo- than Romanesque. Frankly, the whole church feels Italian, even though it was a German architect in New York who designed it for this German parish – but that’s the Catholic Church for you: it doesn’t pay much attention to national borders, never has.
It’s Romanesque because the roof and arches are all rounded, as distinct from the pointy arches favored by the Gothic style.
Now the Romanesque style tends to be darker inside, as the walls are thicker and the windows are smaller. The reason for this is that Romanesque architects are striving to give the sense of an important, imposing, permanent structure.
But here at St. Joseph’s there are many large, stained glass windows, all designed to give the impression of an airy, light atmosphere. This is a hallmark of the Gothic style.
Hence the term neo-Romanesque.
The side aisles lead you up to an altar for each. In days of old, these altars were sponsored and maintained by organizations, from prayer groups to, say, butchers’ guilds, or furniture makers’ associations. They would have their own Masses said, their own chaplains.
Nowadays the form remains, though the use has been curtailed.
You know, this church is dedicated to St. Joseph, but if you look at the artwork, it would be hard to figure that out on your own.
Yes, in the alcove of St. Joseph’s altar are 4 scenes from his life: his betrothal to Mary, their wedding, the flight into Egypt, and his death. But the theme that holds these scenes together is Christ.
Just look above the altar of St. Joseph: there is Christ again, this time beckoning little children to come to Him.
Christ is everywhere in this church called St. Joseph’s. The art exists to draw attention to Him. Everyone else is, let’s say, a means of bringing the conversation around to Christ.
And that of course is the rightful purpose of saints. They have no importance except in relation to God.
Saints act as examples to us of what a faithful follower of Christ looks like, so we can strive to be that faithful to God. Being in Heaven, they also can assist us in asking God for His grace and His help.
Look what is immediately to the left of the altar of St. Joseph: another statue of Christ.
I need to point out the large crucifix that is attached to the wall to the right of this altar. That’s a problem, architecturally and thematically. There’s an inscription at the base of the crucifix that refers to a mission held at St. Joseph’s on September 25, 1892.
First off, our natural reaction is: they spent all that money on this crucifix after a parish mission! That’s impressive.
– And it fits in with the idea that you keep your eyes on God; it’s all about God.
The trouble is: it doesn’t belong where it is. Enough said.
There is another altar on the left, dedicated to Mary.
Once again, we see 4 scenes from her life: the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, and the Coronation in Heaven.
Again, these scenes are really about Christ.
And to underline this, if you look above the alcove, there you’ll see a painting of Christ in the Temple.
Interestingly, the statue to your right of that altar represents St. Anne, and her young daughter Mary.
If you stand in the center aisle and look up, you will see a sequence, again in a very Italian style, of scenes that deal with Christ:
1) Mary visits Elizabeth
2) the Flight into Egypt
3) The search for the 12 year-old Christ in Jerusalem
4) Christ healing the daughter of Jairus
5) Christ speaking to the disciples ( at Caesarea Philippi)
6) Christ outside His tomb, after prophesying that 3 days after His death, He will rise from the dead
Finally, given the constraints of time, let me end with an all too short glance at the sanctuary. Your magnificent high altar comes from Italy, a purchase made in 1909.
Placed in its lower center is a beautiful bas-relief of the Last Supper which was in the parish before the acquisition of the altar, but which continues to enhance the church.
There is so much in all of this – I wish I had the time or strength. For instance, look at your communion rail, and notice how the center section has 12 columns – like the 12 Apostles, and each of the adjoining sections has 6. This was all thought out, and all to praise God and His saving work.
As you see in all of this, the focus of the priests, parishioners, architects and artists who served St. Joseph’s parish in the 19th and 20th centuries was all about Christ, the second person of the Holy Trinity.
They spared no expense – even though they were much poorer than you or I. Clearly, their eyes were on God. It was all about God.
And today they rest from their labors and enjoy the rewards in Heaven of their selfless dedication to the Lord.
But this church is not a museum or a mausoleum. It’s alive, alive with the community it serves and the Master it worships. So I’ll leave you with one little note:
I see that these beautiful stained glass windows are in need of repair. The same thing happened at St. Mary’s down the hill a few years ago, and they fixed the problem.
I have great faith that the community of St. Joseph will also rise to this task, so as to give proper glory to God. Because, it’s all about God.