Today’s feast of the Transfiguration of Jesus has got me thinking again about church building. Let me explain the connection.
In recent years I have been reading about the importance of beauty. Beauty is one of the three transcendentals, not an opinion in the eye of the beholder but an objective reality that corresponds to the human heart’s desire. You get a sense of the importance of beauty from Hans Urs Von Balthasar:
“We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past — whether he admits it or not — can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.” The Glory of the Lord
A deep appreciation of our human need for beauty is especially relevant for the Catholic community of Christchurch as we plan the building of new churches to replace those damaged in the earthquakes. Most parishes and schools begin this process by asking “what do we need.” Such a democratic survey is unlikely to deliver a building that transcends present earthly reality.
Last year in Rome I met with an artist who has given his life to the mission of beauty in the church. He commented that after the Renaissance, Beauty became associated with expense. Before the Renaissance, Beauty was associated with holiness.
A few years ago with a group of pilgrims I visited the Mount of the Transfiguration. It is not too far from the Sea of Galilee, and from every direction it rises distinctively from the plain landscape as a solitary hill. I took the picture above from the bus window.
In a similar way, the account of the Transfiguration of Jesus rises up as if from nowhere in the Gospels. We have Jesus preaching, teaching and performing miracles that have an effect on some but not on others, then, all of a sudden Jesus is speaking with the Old Testament prophets Moses and Elijah and his clothes become ‘dazzlingly white, whiter than any earthly bleacher could make them’.
Our contemporary and practical minds might prefer to dismiss the Transfiguration of Jesus as a bit of unnecessary magic. Perhaps our attachment to our own limited and safe vision dismiss such a pragmatic response.
The Transfiguration of Jesus is the event that opens the door between earthly ordinariness, (days and weeks of routine and mundane and struggling existence), and the divine eternity. In this moment Peter, James and John got a taste of something more; so much so that they could not even put it into words and did not speak of the event when they went down the mountain.
This is what happens every time we celebrate the Mass and the sacraments of the Church. The door between heaven and earth is thrown open by God. We express our struggle and our sin and God pours grace onto us and into us. Once again we realise that we are participants in the divine life of God. This is not the result of anything that we have done. We simply stay with our yearning for hill-top existence when we are down in the valleys, and even in the pits, and Jesus comes to us.
When we leave the church after Mass we are changed people. Like Peter James and John we struggle to put this into words. We are not even really sure what has happened, nor even if anything has happened.
The fact is, we have tasted heaven and in the most tangible form of communion, heaven has come INTO us. We are different, and because of this, even though we go home into the same reality and relationships, every moment of the week ahead is transformed. This foretaste of heaven enables us to live fully in every earthly situation.
I have blogged many times in recent years about Church building, and especially about Bishop Barry Jones’ statement that: “in line with the recommendation of Dr. Denis McNamara, we want the skills of architects who have a proven track record for building Catholic churches in a traditional style.” At the time of Denis’ visit to Christchurch a couple of years ago he was interviewed in the Christchurch Press. In a part of the interview that was edited out for publication, Denis comments:
“A church building has a theological purpose: to reveal in art and architecture the future of a new heaven and new earth, when God is reunited perfectly to humanity through Christ. And so, like a bride’s dress and wedding banquet that follows, church architecture is festive, perfected, glorified, and includes a gem-like radiance. Moreover, it includes the Host (God) and full array of guests (angels and saints). A bride could certainly roll out of bed, walk into church in her exercise clothes and get married by using technical jargon instead of the rites of the Church. But the event would not appear to be as important as it is and its theological importance would be obscured. And so it goes with church architecture, which proclaims to the world that the Wedding Feast of the Lamb—that is, the reuniting of God and humanity desired since the Fall of Adam and Eve—has begun. This is described in words in the Book of Revelation, and we see it with our eyes by making the church building embody those heavenly realities.