There is only one day in the church calendar when we celebrate a building. That is November 9, when we celebrate the dedication of the basilica of St. John Lateran.
This feast, one out of 365 liturgical days, is a theological nod to the fact that even though persons are the primordial sacraments, sometimes things that persons create are sacraments, too – at least sacraments in a sense, perhaps with a small “s.”
That feast reminds us that sometimes buildings, like other created and beautiful things, can be symbols of God’s presence in the world.
The theologian Michael Himes talks about this in a “theological note” about Church institutions. He says that our institutions are not just incidental to the ministry of the Gospel; they are incarnational and we must consider them as “giving skin to Christ,” making Christ’s mission in the world real and actual.
He suggests that failure to do so is actually a form of docetism, the heresy that Christ appeared to be human, appeared to have taken flesh; in reality, he never stepped into the real flesh of human existence. Himes writes:
If we take the Incarnation seriously, if we believe that the second person of the trinity has become like us in all things except sin, then we must accept the fact that God expresses God’s self in time and space, here and now, not then and there.
His point is that God’s self is also expressed in our institutions, embedded and entangled in culture as they are.
St. John Lateran has a certain historical and theological pre-eminence for us because it was the first Christian basilica and the official Church of the Holy Father.
But there are other churches that stand out for us because they are icons of their own time and place, “giving flesh to Christ” in a certain cultural idiom.
Think of other classic Roman basilicas like San Clemente and Santa Sabina; among the earliest churches in Rome, they reflect in their majestic simplicity a growing confidence in a church that was only a few centuries old.
Or think of Notre Dame, and Chartres and Rheims and Durham – great expressions of the medieval synthesis and the height of engineering and art.
Or imagine Saint Sulpice in Paris, and its overwhelming Baroque exuberance; or Sagrada Familia in Spain, a church which always makes me think of a “melted” Gothic Cathedral, but which still reflects that periods’ artistic aspirations.
Think of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, reflecting 20th century industrial Bauhaus architecture, or St. Peter’s Lutheran Church nestled, like a cornerstone, in the soaring, aluminum, Citicorp building in midtown Manhattan. The church is remarkable not only for its location but because the sanctuary is below street level. When you walk by you can look down in and see the congregation. This is a very important statement in a period in history when many people view the Church as opaque and obsolete.
Then we’ve got this chapel, in a former adding machine factory, of all things. It doesn’t have the majesty of Santa Sabina or Chartres, but it too has an iconic character.
It signifies the place that theology and spirituality have in a battered but recovering city; and we hope that it will be a place of truth and spirituality and a bold statement about Gospel hope in a post-industrial world.
But of course buildings in themselves, for all their power to inspire and awe, are not enough.
n today’s first reading, St. Paul writes a letter of encouragement to Timothy. The letter is affectionate and warm (even mentioning his mother and grandmother) but the charge he gives is stern; St. Paul might even have been thinking of the words in the Gospel in Mark—which, even if not yet written down, were certainly in the oral tradition
“Is a lamp brought in to be placed under a bushel basket
or under a bed, and not to be placed on a lamp stand?”
He might have been thinking of that lamp as he said to Timothy,
“Stir the flame of the Gift you have received from the Lord, and bear your share of hardship for the Gospel.”
Stir the flame and bear your share. This reminds us that our new building, wonderful as it is, is not the flame, though it is perhaps the lamp stand. It will achieve its purpose only if we stir the flame, and if we commit to bearing our part for the sake of the Gospel.
As we celebrate this first Eucharist in this about-to-be-blessed building, let us pray that it might be, from this day on, not just bricks and mortar and timbers; not a factory or a place of commerce; but rather a home to the rich word of God, studied and prayed, that will spill over into the world around us.
Charles Bouchard, O.P.
President, Aquinas Institute of Theology