Recently my parish celebrated the 25th Anniversary of the dedication of our Church. To help mark the significance of the occasion, our church building got a mini-makeover. We reconfigured the space behind the altar, painted the interior to freshen things up, replaced carpet, and refinished pews. It all happened during the week, so daily mass was moved to the Parish Center. Our Pastor reunited us for Sunday Mass as the work progressed in stages over about a month.
It did not seem like much cosmetically, but the many small changes came together to make a tremendous difference in the space, which is now rejuvenated and refreshed. As parishioners, we too were reinvigorated. We kept St. Michael's Lent as a community from the Solemnity of the Assumption to the Feast of St. Michael, offering prayers and sacrifices for the continued strength and growth of our parish. We prayed the Chaplet of our Patron, St. Michael, within our families and after daily Mass.
Who would have thought that celebrating a building would be such a source of renewal? It caused me to reflect prayerfully upon the sacred walls of our churches, the bricks and mortar of our Catholic lives, and what they represent for us as Catholics.
The Place of His Enthronement
"Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of the whole assembly of Israel, and stretching forth his hands toward heaven, he said, “Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth below; you keep your covenant and love toward your servants who walk before you with their whole heart.
Is God indeed to dwell on earth? If the heavens and the highest heavens cannot contain you, how much less this house which I have built! Regard kindly the prayer and petition of your servant, Lord, my God, and listen to the cry of supplication which I, your servant, utter before you this day. May your eyes be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you said, My name shall be there; listen to the prayer your servant makes toward this place. Listen to the petition of your servant and of your people Israel which they offer toward this place. Listen, from the place of your enthronement, heaven, listen and forgive." (1 Kings 8:22-23, 27-30)
It's true, the structure itself is not what's most important, but my parish is a lovely place to worship. The space stirs the heart. It moves me with love and desire for God, raising my mind to the things of heaven and prompting me to aspire to holiness.
From the first time I entered that space with my husband, kneeling in prayer in the second row before looking for a place to live, it has been "my church." I have been present there in both suffering and rejoicing, and God has always been present to me there.
The walls of the building are a physical sign. There is a certitude to its structure. It is a place with which we identify. It is "our" church - a space where we are welcomed. It is our "home." We raised our children to think of their church as a "home away from home." To see them demonstrate that feeling as they went from toddling about to being Confirmed was a precious gift. Even when they were small and were a little too boisterous and comfortable in "their" space at church, it was still a great blessing!
Within These Sacred Walls
Within these sacred walls we are inspired to grow, change, and be conformed to Christ. Inside, we learn to rejoice and to suffer well, doing both for love of Jesus. We prepare ourselves for union with Him in heaven, while enduring this life below - no matter what it brings - in Christian joy. Inside our parish church, we live an intimate communion with brothers and sisters in Christ whom we may never know.
The church building has a foundation of stone, of course. Though I can't see it, I know it is there. I don’t need to see it with my own eyes. The rest of the structure stands firmly in place, anchored on earth, but aspiring to the heavens. Just like our Faith.
The foundation of my church space, and yours, is Christ. Not a stone-cold slab, layered with mortar, but still a structure - fundamentally living. It is not simply a building, but a life as a parish. One that is organic, united, growing in communion with one another, and in union with the Head, who is the Lord.
The Living Stones and the Cornerstone
We too are God's building, the temples of God. We are the living stones, St. Peter tells us. As we draw closer to Christ, we are configured and rebuilt as His spiritual house. We offer our own spiritual sacrifices acceptable to the Father inside the sacred space and within our own lives.
Peter exhorts us in 1 Peter, 2:5 to come to Him, a living stone rejected by man, but in the sight of God, chosen and precious, so that we can be remade, built up, as a spiritual house, as members who support the Head.
Our Savior is the Cornerstone, the single stone used to designate the foundation of a structure. It is placed strategically, all the other stones then firmly set around it. Jesus, the Cornerstone, marks our history. He is the reason we celebrate in our churches. The living stone. The Christ.
The mysteries of His rejection and death are our legacy. The Passion of Christ was not the collapse of the Church. In fact, it was the opposite. Just when it seemed the whole structure should fall to pieces, He is there to manifest His incredible, unfailing strength. To save us individually, and as a Body of Christ. He upholds each parish community, and each individual heart.
Jesus asked Peter, "Who do people say that I am?" When Peter replied, Jesus shared His own identity with Peter, proclaiming, “You are Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my Church." (Matthew 16:18)
Jesus the Cornerstone gave a piece of His identity to Peter the rock. That is the perfect symmetry of God. In doing so, He made Peter a physical sign. Every priest follows in Peter’s footsteps, carrying that legacy to the faithful. No matter how weak in his humanity, no matter how young or old, each priest is that physical sign - that rock. Our priests represent the Head. They are configured to Christ, in order to make Him present in this place.
The Power of this Sacred Space
Here we see the power of our Church to bind and loose, to represent authority, and lead us faithfully. We see the power of the structure to guide mankind, share burdens, bring comfort, and unite brothers and sisters who are otherwise strangers. To this sacred space we come to celebrate our greatest joys and most profound sorrows.
We are consecrated to God in Baptism, we have our sins forgiven, and we receive the great gift of the Eucharist here in this house. In this space we perpetuate the Faith, through Holy Orders and religious vows. We are healed, restored, and fortified for this earthly journey each time we enter through its doors.
We are refreshed there as He enters the interior of our hearts. We are drawn up and into God, together as one body, for our entire lives. When the time comes, we end our earthly lives in this space, with funeral Masses ushering us into eternity and consoling those we leave behind.
Can there be a more important and more remarkable space for Catholics than these four walls?
Each church building is a place - a space - of great mystery, where the gates of the netherworld will not prevail. Evil, tormentors, persecutors, unbelievers, worldly vanities, and allurements do not take the life of the Church. Our Church will not succumb.
It is a place - a space - that chronicles our very lives as Catholics. Our most profound joys and sorrows all play out in this very space, where we bring them before the Lord. We offer them to Him, we accept them from Him. We beg for grace, and we rejoice in elation.
We celebrate a God whom the heavens cannot contain, who chooses to dwell with us. We celebrate the entire Body of Christ, a temple of living stones - within this temple of Living Stone. We celebrate our most profound joy as Catholics:
that within these sacred walls, God dwells among us.