By Fr. Aaron Johanneck
(From a series found in The Prairie Catholic)
In the last article we began to answer the question, “What exactly is a church?” As was explained, a church is much more than an event hall in which any activity can take place. It is even more than simply a place where Christians gather. A church is a building dedicated and set aside for worship and prayer, and a building with great meaning.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that when we enter a church we cross a threshold (cf. CCC 1186). It should be clear that we are entering a place unlike any other. Think about the beautiful churches that you yourself perhaps have visited; churches that truly struck you in some way as you entered, or even as you approached them. There are some churches that evoke in us true wonder and awe. We marvel at the craftsmanship, the artistry, the sacrifices made by the faithful for such a structure to be built and furnished, and at the overall effect the building has on us. We note how these churches move us to prayer, how they lift our spirits, and how they give glory to God. Many will comment on how they have felt “transported” as they entered a truly beautiful church. They felt as if they had left the mundane and worldly, and entered a place that is truly holy and sacred in which holy and sacred activities take place.
This is an appropriate experience. It is one that we should desire to evoke in the design of new churches or in the renovation of existing ones. As the Catechism states, the threshold we cross as we enter a church “symbolizes passing from the world wounded by sin to the world of the new Life to which all men are called” (CCC 1186). As we pass through the doors of a beautiful church we can have an experience of crossing the border from the fallen world affected by sin, evil, and disorder to the world redeemed by Christ and reconciled to the Father.
As we enter a church we pass from earth to heaven. As the Catechism explains, “Our visible churches, holy places, are images of the holy city, the heavenly Jerusalem, toward which we are making our way on pilgrimage” (CCC 1198). The Book of Revelation describes the heavenly Jerusalem as built of jasper and pure gold. The foundations of the city are adorned with every kind of jewel, and the gates are pearls (cf. Revelation 21:18-21). Thus churches are adorned with precious materials, stained glass, beautiful furnishings, and decorative paint schemes to manifest the beauty of heaven.
As mentioned in the previous article, a church building represents the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ. This is why the same word is used for both realities. The cleanliness, order, and beauty of a church images the purity, order, and beauty of the souls of those redeemed by the Blood of Christ and made holy through prayer and the sacraments. It represents the state of soul that we must strive to attain as baptized Christians. As St. Augustine writes, “The work we see complete in this building is physical; it should find its spiritual counterpart in your hearts. We see here the finished product of stone and wood; so too your lives should reveal the handiwork of God’s grace” (alternate Second Reading, Office of Readings for the Dedication of a Church).
In this way, a worthy and beautiful church issues a challenge to us to cross a threshold in our own lives, passing from the ugliness of sin and selfishness to the beauty of sacrificial, selfless love in a soul transformed by the grace of God.