Where Heaven and Earth meet
“Churches are complicated, but they are also amazing layers of meaning, the invitation to walk into your heavenly future. It’s what I call architectural theology,” said Dr. Denis McNamara at a lecture on the “Bible and Church Architecture.” He is an associate professor and Executive Director of the Center for Beauty and Culture at Benedictine College, Atchison, Kansas.
After two days of addressing diocesan priests as their keynote speaker for the Annual Clergy Convocation at Terra Sancta Retreat Center, Rapid City, he gave a public address tying church symbolism to scripture passages. According to him churches do not need to return to the ornate 1950s or the boring beige walls of the late 20th century. His power point presentation showed historic influences, successes and epic fails attempting to incorporate modern art and Bible references.
“The idea is, it is an apprenticeship for heaven,” he said, describing walking into a church. In keeping with tradition, McNamara said ideally it should touch all five senses: sounds – songs joined with saints and angels praising God; sights — columns like trees reaching up to the cosmos and stained-glass windows resembling sparkling jewels in heaven; the smell of fresh flowers and incense rising; the touch of clean orderly surfaces; and the taste of the Eucharist.
“We call a thing beautiful when it exhibits a clear revelation of its ontological reality,” he said. Ontological is the reality of existence known in the mind of God.
McNamara, drawing on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, said churches should represent heaven and earth completely restored with divine life. Or put another way, they are a sign of God and man reconciled. McNamara called a church building an image of the body of Christ where the sanctuary is heaven, and the altar is Christ offering himself.
In the Old Testament, McNamara said the Jewish people had two buildings for worship — a synagogue and a temple. The synagogue is a consecrated place to be used exclusively for prayer. It holds an empty chair, a seat for Moses and his power. He commented that Catholics have a similar chair, the cathedra, or bishop’s seat of power. Synagogues are oriented toward Jerusalem and have a reader’s platform from which we derived the ambo. The Torah is kept in a special niche, the Holy of Holies.
Temples held thousands of animal sacrifices described in detail in 1st Kings and Chronicles. McNamera asked the audience to “imagine the noise, blood and smells.” The original temple built by Solomon, son of David, was destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. The temple built by King Herod had Roman influences meeting Jewish culture. Intimidating columns were three stories high. The inner room had images of a new Garden of Eden or a new earth. The Holy of Holies was a cube shaped room with images of heaven, and it contained the Ark of the Covenant. The temple had stones weighing 40 tons that were hand cut by consecrated priests. In contrast, the great pyramids in Egypt have stones that are 11 tons each.
He said, “The temple is a place outside of time related to the perfection of the world, victory over chaos, a place of cosmic symbolism, and a microcosm of creation.”
McNamara said in Catholic worship we combine the two buildings hearing both the Liturgy of the Word and joining the Sacrifice of the Eucharist. He has written several books including “Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy,” that could help parish building or remodeling committee members create the intersection of heaven and earth.