Imagine New England without churches. Imagine every steeple toppled from the skyline: a horizon without heaven. In the whirl of the day, there is nowhere to turn, no home for the heart, no mother in stone, no place set apart for God (and you). Imagine a spiritual dust bowl and no refuge.
Without churches, souls are in drought. Now this is not because the building is the church. We are the church. But neither is the church building something indifferent to us.
As the church, “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20). In this world, we live as “aliens and exiles.” We “accept the authority of every human institution”, but we are foreigners (1Pt 2:11.13). We are away from home. The church building is our embassy.
In a church, we are most ourselves. It is our native land. We gather as “fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God” (Eph 2:19). We enter a church as expatriates returning home. There, the sights, smells, sounds and language are all familiar. We recognize our countrymen in the statues and stained glass. We see the altar where we share food with angels. We see our king, waiting for us.
Imagine your town without your embassy. The Book of Revelation also speaks of a city without churches. Seeing the heavenly Jerusalem, St. John reports “I saw no temple in the city for its temple is the Lord God and the Lamb” (Rev. 21:22). In John’s vision, the time for embassies has passed. Heaven and earth are joined. God himself is the temple. The city is the church.
In the present time however, our churches are necessary. These embassies of heaven sanctify cities and towns. Peppered on hilltops and next to highways, they anticipate the heavenly Jerusalem. On earth, they are the lamps of heaven.
We cannot hasten God’s plan, but we can make our churches shine brighter. We can do this by being ourselves…by being different.
Many second and third generation children of immigrant families lament their ignorance of the home country. Wanting their children to fit in, their parents sheltered them from their language. Something similar has happened in the church. Wanting to fit in, we have not passed on the language.
Our church is an immigrant from heaven. Our language is our faith. It makes us different: “you are the salt of the earth” (Mt 5:13). But losing our fluency in faith, are we not rather salt which has lost its flavor? We are “the light of the world” (Mt 5:14). We can turn the lights on in our churches, only if we risk being ourselves.
Father George K. Nixon serves as assistant pastor at St. Philip Parish, Greenville. Ordained in 2011, he holds a licentiate in sacred theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. “Verbum Domini” is a series of Father Nixon’s reflections on the Scriptures.