Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Sturdy Liturgical House

Church architecture is an important aspect of liturgical practice, because it impacts the conduct of the Church's ceremonies in a direct and immediate way. Certainly there has been a variety of architectural designs in the Church's life on earth, and broad differences, for example, between the East and West. But there is also a rather remarkable consistency in the patterns and floor plans of church buildings; which isn't so terribly amazing, after all, since the architecture aims at serving and supporting a stable set of fundamental ceremonies that constitute the Church's life. There is a path that leads to and from the baptristy or baptismal font, and thence to and from the Lord's Altar.

Little wonder that the disciples of Jesus were first called "followers of the Way," since there is a bodily movement to this Christian faith and life, traversing space and time. If one pictures the reading of the Holy Scriptures at the horns of the Altar, and supposes the baptismal font to be located at the entrance of the nave, there is a cruciform shape to this great ship of the Church: from the font to the Altar through the intersecting crossbeam of the Word.

Both the shape and the stability of good Church architecture assists the people of God in their approach to Him through Christ in the Holy Spirit. If the floorplan were constantly shifting and the furnishings were regularly rearranged, the people would be utterly confused and distracted from the things of Christ. The unease and discomfort of their bodies in the midst of such chaos would contribute to a corresponding lack of security in their hearts, minds and spirits. No peace or rest, but either aggravation or else the adrenaline rush of personal bravado in those who thrill at the challenge of keeping up and delight in demonstrating how quick on their feet they can be.

Our family homes provide another case in point. The first time we enter a new house, everything in it and everything about it is new. That can be exciting to some extent, as we explore and discover its patterns and its personality, but there is also some frustration as we endeavor to get on with the business of living in this place that is to be our home. Until we figure out where the light switches are, and where the dishes and the food are to be kept, and where the bed sits in relation to the door, and how to find the bathroom in the darkness and sleepiness of the night, and how to adjust the temperature of the shower, there is some fumbling about to be expected and tolerated, some missteps and occasional bumping into things. For little children, and maybe for all of us, there may also be moments of fascination with some feature of the house that we've never noticed anywhere else. In time, all of this will be quite normal and so natural as to fade into the background of our attention. That is also to expected, and it is good and helpful.

When our house has truly become our home, we go about living there with our families and are able to focus on the rhythms of each day, each week, each season and each year without missing a beat. The stability of the house itself, its floors and walls and ceiling, and the relative stability of the rooms, the way they are furnished and arranged, provides the security we need to savor our meals, to enjoy the company of our family and friends, and to lay down in peace and rest each night.

Church architecture assists the household and family of God in much the same way. So, too, in continuity with the buildings in which we are gathered to live by the grace of God in the Name of Christ Jesus, there is also a sturdy liturgical house in which we likewise find security and peaceful rest. By this I do not refer to the space and its accouterments, but to the order and form, the rites and ceremonies of the Liturgy. These are built upon the necessary foundation of the means of grace, and structured by the orthodox administration of those gifts: namely, the catechesis that leads to and from Holy Baptism; the preaching of repentance that returns us Christians daily to the significance of our Baptism and raises us with Christ in His forgiveness of our sins; and the administration of the Holy Communion, which is the definitive ceremony and the beating heart of the Church's life on earth. These are the floor, the walls, the ceiling and the rooms of the sturdy liturgical house in which the family of God lives and moves and has its being.

When a person is new to that house, whether as a guest or as a brand new member of the family, there may be some frustration with things that seem unusual at first, and perhaps an out-of-proportion fascination with some details that are not quite at the heart and center of things, but which are part of the family's heritage and decorum. The person acclamating to this household and family needs to learn, to some extent by trial and error, how to navigate the doorways and hallways from one room to the next, and where to sit in the living room and at the dining table, and how to wash up before the supper is served. The arrangement of things, the artwork and adornments of the home, and the routines of the family in moving about together in this place will become familiar in due time, gradually and naturally. That is how it is with families.

As that happens, the stability of the Church's liturgical "house" enables the household to savor the family meal, to enjoy the fellowship of brothers and sisters in Christ, and to rest securely in the peace of the Gospel. One is not troubled or distracted by things that once were new and unusual, but finds in them the comforts of a house that is truly a home. Things do not change at random or arbitrarily in such a place. If there are seasonal decorations or occasional rearrangements of the furniture, those transitions occur within the safety of a sound foundation, solid walls and a suitable ceiling, none of which are moving about or going anywhere.

The family of the Church on earth has more than one liturgical "house," that is true. But those homes that are truly "liturgical," that is, those that are built upon the foundation of catholic catechesis, Holy Baptism, evangelical preaching and the Holy Communion, will have more in common with each other than any differences between them. A cousin visiting from one such house will know how to find his way around and make himself at home in the liturgical house of another. There is no harm in this; for differences in fasting do not divide the Body of Christ.

How different, though, when the house is not liturgical at all, but built upon the shifting sands of cultural trends, marketing ploys, various and sundry demographics, special interest groups, and the entrepreneurial ingenuity of the current minister-of-what's-happening-now. The doors are always moving about, and the rooms are constantly being rearranged, and the furnishings are never quite the same, and the light switches keep getting switched, and the artwork goes from bad to worse to who-knows-what. One has no idea how to enter the house in the first place, or where the family gathers, or if there is going to be any meal or not, or how and when it might be served, or whether there is any soap and water in what used to be the bathroom. By the time one may or may not be seated at the table, or sent to the counter for alá carte, there is no sense of calm security in which to enjoy and digest the food. There is no peace in which to rest, but only uncertainty and disquiet.

So, for my part, this poor child of God is glad to live in the liturgical house that his wise fathers and mothers have built and furnished and arranged on the foundation of the One who is wiser than Solomon. Indeed, dear Solomon, He has outdone thee in His Hagia Sophia. And as a father myself, I would not have my children live in frantic chaos and confusion, either, but in the security, peace and rest of a sturgy liturgical house. Therefore, the home which I have inherited from my fathers, I also bequeath to my progeny, unto my children's children, with every hope and prayer that my Sarena and all her kin will live in this same old house.

1 comment:

  1. Peace is exactly what I feel is missing in the American Evangelical movement. It is, after all, so very American - always looking to what is next.

    What our fathers give us with their sturdy house, most of all, is the peace we need to heed God's Word.



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