The feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran last week was a twofold reminder of the importance of that church, which is the Pope’s cathedral and, like all churches, an expression of the unity found in communion with the Successor of Saint Peter. It is also an important sign that all church buildings are expressions of heaven.
In Jerusalem, our Lord said that if the temple were destroyed, he would rebuild it in three days. He was speaking of his own body, for buildings come and go but he lives forever. Yet he revered the earthly temple and became most righteously angry, using a whip to drive out those who profaned it. Each one of us by baptism becomes a temple of the Holy Spirit, and the best way to keep that human shrine fit for God is to whip Satan out of it by going to confession.
Church buildings are natural lodgings for the supernatural Church, which is why we should make them as beautiful as possible. Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” The art and skill with which we adorn churches in turn bring us closer to the Lord. It is not enough to believe in Christ. The acknowledgement of his divinity must move the soul to worship him. “The devils also believe and tremble in fear” (James 2:19), because they refuse to worship him. Their fear is servile fear, and not the holy fear, or awe, that churches should evoke and encourage. It is the difference between being haunted and being holy.
Jesus called the Temple “My Father’s house” because he is the Divine Son. We pray “Our Father” and not “My Father” because we are not divine by nature, but God “adopts” us as his children, and so church buildings express in stone what we are in flesh. They should not be like lecture halls or living rooms, but should be places where earth and heaven meet. To enter a church is to confess that our relationship with God is a corporate obedience to his will and not an individualistic exercise of arbitrary opinions.
Hundreds of churches have been destroyed recently in Iraq and Syria. Christians there paradoxically become ever more vividly Christian by their terrible suffering. When we get into a lather about merging churches in our city, and act as though the closing of a church building were the end of the world, we should rather ask ourselves if we could be servants of God without a particular building of which we have become fond. In all things, including church architecture, faith offers God the best we can give. But without the devotion of the heart, asceticism fades away into vain aestheticism. A wise liturgist once said that the best way to make a church beautiful is to fill it with people.