Church buildings: Where the word of God becomes flesh

Father John A. Kiley

Although St. Peter’s Basilica is by far the most famous church in Rome, the actual cathedral church for the diocese of Rome is the Lateran Basilica dedicated to St. John the Baptist. Until the Middle Ages, the bishops of Rome actually did live at the Lateral Palace adjoining the basilica.

But, when the pontiffs returned from a seventy year sojourn in France, the Lateran facility was in such disrepair that the pope decided to use St. Peter’s Basilica for official functions. Along with the other two major Roman basilicas – St. Mary Major and St. Paul’s outside the Walls – the premier churches of Rome happily commemorate the Church’s four greatest saints: the Blessed Virgin, St. John the Baptist, St. Peter and St. Paul. Although the dedication days of these four churches are commemorated in the Church’s calendar each year, this year the commemoration of the basilica of St. John Lateran occurs on a Sunday, so the whole church-going world can better appreciate the significance that these great churches as well as all houses of worship hold for the believing community.

Associating the presence of God with a particular spot of land is as old as the believing community itself. Abraham commemorated the locales where he encountered God by erecting an altar in each of the four settings where God spoke to him. Jacob met God at an area he later called Bethel and famously declared, “Indeed, this is the house of God and the gate of heaven!” King David destroyed all the lesser shrines of Israel in order to focus attention on the Temple in Jerusalem where God effectively dwelt over the Mercy Seat in the Holy of Holies. After early Christianity’s bleak period of martyrdom ended in the fourth century, the instinctive human tendency to enshrine those meeting places of God and man flourished. Pagan temples were adapted for Christian use; basilicas, cathedrals, churches and chapels abounded throughout the European countryside. Among the great contributions that our own religious ancestors made to religious culture are the magnificent parish churches that especially abound in our older cities. Churches of all shapes and sizes continue to be “the house of God and the gate of heaven” for true believers.

The presence of the omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent God is by no means limited to a certain spot or to a certain building. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” the psalmist reminds all, “and the skies proclaim his handiwork.” God is indeed discovered everywhere as our New England Transcendentalist forebears often called to mind. Ralph Waldo Emerson resigned the ministry of Boston’s Second Church, preferring to seek Divinity in nature rather than in church. Emily Dickinson concurred with his decision, “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church,” she wrote, “I keep it, staying at Home – With a Bobolink for a Chorister – And an Orchard, for a Dome.”

The omnipresence of God notwithstanding, the logical and sacramental consequence of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ is the familiar church building, perhaps as magnificent as a Roman basilica, perhaps as humble as a wayside chapel. God did not enter into human history as a pure spirit or an amorphous force. God first of all entered time through an historical people, the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who encountered God in memorable sites. God eventually granted them his continued presence in Jerusalem’s Temple. In the fullness of time, God re-entered history in the Person of his only-begotten Son, the man Jesus Christ, who lived at a certain place, at a certain time, within a certain people. God’s on-going encounter with the family of man – from Jewish times and throughout Christian times – is always human, always earthly, always cultural, and always incarnational. God constantly reveals himself in terms that men and women can grasp, comprehend and appreciate. There is nothing vague about God’s appearance in history.

Through our hallowed Church buildings, the Word continues to become flesh and to dwell among mankind. Church buildings encapsulate almost four thousand years of salvation history in an accessible, defined, respectful setting. Church buildings are Scripture and Tradition, beliefs and sacrament, prophecy and prayer, appropriately crafted into wood and stone, marble and glass.