"Awesome is this place: it is the house of God, and the gate of heaven; and it shall be called the court of God" (Gen.28,17).
"How lovely are Thy Tabernacles, O Lord of Hosts! My soul longs and faints for the courts of the Lord." (Ps.83, 2,3).
These words are from the Introit for the Mass of the dedication of a church.
These words are not simple and ordinary poetic flights of fancy. They are the word of God. It is the Holy Ghost telling all mankind what this building called a `temple' or `church' truly is in reality.
The simple statement: "Awesome is this place.." should give any intelligent Catholic food for deep thought. God is not speaking of heaven where we all claim to desire to terminate our earthly journey. God is speaking of that edifice where Catholics gather at least on Sundays to pray and to adore God; that `place' specially prepared for the greatest, most perfect act of adoration: the holy Sacrifice of the Mass..
Catholics gather in this building because it is not just another building. Its appointments are quite foreign to our own individual homes. Its style is truly not of this world. On the contrary, if the style of the church were to resemble too closely our own homes it would no longer speak to us of another world, another dimension. A divine dimension.
It is a very sad situation, indeed, when even the clergy fail to realize what this edifice of wood and brick really is. It must be admitted to our shame that the people become like their spiritual leaders because their spiritual leaders have become like the people. And the people? So many have embraced the anti-cultural elements so violently imposed upon the unthinking masses. Unthinking clergy are worse than unthinking people. For, truly, "the blind leading the blind, both fall into the pit."
While it is true that the Mass can be offered almost anywhere and while it is equally true that we can pray anywhere, it is also very true that not every place where the Mass is offered and the Sacraments administered can be called a `church'.
During war, military chaplains offered Holy Mass using the hood of a jeep for an altar. The fighting men attending Mass in the open amid bursting bombs and the not-too-distant rat-tat-tat of machine gun fire even knelt in mud and their uniforms would never do for a proud parade.
The priest, however, was vested in all the necessary liturgical garb. They all prayed; they all united themselves with the great mystery taking place before their very eyes. But, at no time did anyone even suggest that this brief pause in battle constituted a "church".
When the first Christians gathered in the catacombs or in private homes for the Sacrifice of the Mass, neither the catacombs nor the private homes were ever considered "the house of God".
The fullness of the Scriptural truth could only be realized when the Church gained Her freedom to function openly in public. It was then that churches were built as if by some divine instinct.
The Roman Catholic church is the continuation and perfection of the temple of the Old Testament. The Catholics of the Old Testament flowed, as it were, into the New Testament which was perfected by Jesus, the incarnate Son of God.
For this reason, there are many obvious similarities between the Old Testament temple and the New Testament edifice.
It is at this point that a very important distinction must be made. It is often said that Christianity comes from Judaism. This is a most fundamental error on the part of the misinformed and a most malicious deception on the part of those who have knowingly promoted this historical error. The scribes and Pharisees had already broken with the true Church and the true faith while still occupying the buildings. Any knowledgeable Catholic of today can relate to this by observing the effects of the modern Great Apostasy. Heresy destroys the Mystical Body while continuing to inhabit the religious edifices that faith built. It is so common today that hardly anyone perceives the fact.
Ordinarily, the church is called a "house of prayer". Our Lord Himself has shown us this aspect in the scene where He chased out the merchants from the temple.
When Jesus came to the temple of Jerusalem on the Passover, what did He find?
St. John gives us a good description of this scene: "Now the Passover of the Judeans was at hand, and Jesus went up to the Jerusalem. And he found in the temple men selling oxen, sheep and doves, and money-changers at their tables." (John 2,13).
This must have been a typical scene which Jesus had observed more than once. Yet, having observed it, He did not react then as He was reacting now. How did He react to this scene? Again, let Holy Scripture speak for us:
"And making a kind of whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, also the sheep and oxen, and he poured out the money of the changes and overturned the tables".(Ibid. 2, 15).
In so doing, our Lord said to them: "It is written: My Father's house is a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers". Our Lord is quoted from the prophet Isaias: "I will bring them into my holy mount, and will make them joyful in my house of prayer. Their holocausts and their victims shall please me upon the altar, for my house shall be called the house of prayer for all nations." (Isa.56,7).
Likewise, Jesus is making allusion to the prophet Jeremias who inveighed against the Hebrews of his day, saying: "Is this house then, in which my name hath been called upon, in your eyes become a den of robbers? I, I am he: I have seen it, saith the Lord." (Jer.7,11).
Jesus chased out all the merchants from this holy place. And the reason is clear: Commerce in the temple is forbidden because prayer and commerce are mutually exclusive existential actions of man. One negates the other. How so?
Prayer directs our soul's attention to the eternity, to the Lord, to His holy providence. It stirs up confidence in God; it places us under His protection. In prayer, we leave ourselves that we may live in the Creator.
Commerce, on the other hand, draws us to and confines us to the present reality; the reality of our existence this side of eternity.
Commerce places material things in the center of our attention; it makes trust in our own abilities, in our cleverness the sum of all things. It is like an invasive vine that surrounds and girdles the trunk of a tree.
In as much as prayer makes us humble and modest, commerce makes us proud and even bold. To engage in commerce in the holy place (the church or temple) means to bring in all these worldly elements and to turn the temple into a "den of robbers".
According to the Apocalypse, merchants deal not only in gold and silver, wine and oil, flour, wheat and cattle, but also in human souls. (Cfr.Apoc.18,18). The center of their commerce is that earthly city with whom "the kings of the earth committed fornication and lived wantonly" .and they "will weep and mourn over her when they see the smoke of her burning."
This city _ this `city' over which Satan rules is guilty of the blood shed from the beginning of time: "And in her was found blood of prophets and of saints, and all who have been slain upon the earth."
The Holy Scriptures equate the den of commerce with `the den of robbers' and thus expresses its very essence. An essence that is opposed to the essence of the holy place.
It is not worldly worries and matters nor man's daily battle for survival that should enter this holy place. Rather, it should be the longing for that eternal existence which is expressed in the form of sacrifice and prayer.
As we will presently see, the holy place is more than just a place for prayer. The concept of a holy place ( a church) is not exhausted by simply defining it as a place of prayer.
Our Lord makes this clear from the comments made by Him to the Samaritan woman who came to draw water from the well. He was asked by this woman "Where must God be worshipped?"
She said: "Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you say that at Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship".
Jesus then answered the woman: "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jersusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Judeans. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. For the Father also seeks such to worship him. God is spirit and they who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth." (John 4, 21-24).
Jesus meant by these words that it is possible to worship God and to thank Him anywhere and at any time. He wished to indicate that prayer is not bound to any special place; that it is the expression of the spirit based on the recognition of truth and its putting into practice.
Man's entire existing space is his place of prayer. Now, if this is true, then it would seem that the church is something more than a house of prayer. There are many ordinary places that can serve as a place of prayer: the office, the prisoner's cell, the woods, the fields _ even the road and street. We can pray anywhere and at any time provided we pray "in spirit and in truth."
But this does not mean that the church has lost its purpose and consequently, would be of no use.
As was already stated, the early Christians knew that it was possible to pray anywhere. They had to do this because they were persecuted and had to pray in secret and hidden places.
However, they also understood something else: They understood that the church plays such a vital role in their existence that nothing else can substitute for it. The church, as an edifice, is an essential constitutive element in the existence of the Christian life without which he would risk going astray _ even in his prayers.
This aspect of the church is very visible in our times. We generally look at the church from a pastoral viewpoint. The church edifice is seen as that place where we gather to pray, to receive the Sacraments, and to hear the word of God preached.
Consequently, when new churches are built, the uppermost consideration is their pastoral purpose. Thus, we only build churches where pastoral use dictates. When the number of faithful becomes too large for the existing church, another one is built.
It would be surprising if today's people and clergy were to build a church that would serve no apparent pastoral need.
What is the difference between how earlier Christians experienced the church and the people today? For one thing, the church edifice meant far more to the people of the past than just a place to pray, to receive the Sacraments and to hear the word of God preached.
Today, we evaluate the church solely from man's need. This human need may well be a religious one, but it is still man's need. Human subjectivity has replaced divine objectivity.
We can only comprehend the essence of the church as an edifice if we remember that it is the house of God. A house of prayer is not the same as the house of God.
An edifice becomes a church only when it is destined not only to be used as a place of prayer, but also as a place for God to live.
That the church is essentially God's house is seen by our Lord's chasing out the merchants from the temple. It is not only the act of chasing these individuals from the temple that has meaning, but also His very words: "Take these things away, and do not make the house of my Father a house of business." (John 2, 16).
Obviously, Jesus is not condemning the transaction of business. Commerce in the temple is prohibited because it is a house of prayer , but it is only a house of prayer because it is the Father's house.
The Lord dwells in the temple (church) and for this reason man must feel that he is in the presence of the Almighty. He must experience this place as something truly holy because wherever man comes into contact with God that place becomes untouchable to unconsecrated hands and unconsecrated things and actions.
This is remarkably expressed in the scene where Moses went up the mountain to see the burning bush. He said to himself: "I will go and see this spectacular sight, why the bush is not consumed" (Exodus, 3,3). But, when he drew near to the burning bush, God said to him: "Come no nearer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground. I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob." (Ibid. 3, 5-6).
Note the abrupt command: "Come no nearer!" As if to say: "STOP!" Here we a situation that appears to us at once seemingly contradictory: God certainly made Himself manifest in this way to attract Mose's attention. Moses was inspired to draw close to examine the strange phenomenon. Yet, he was not permitted to draw any closer unless he fulfilled a fundamental condition: Moses had to take off his sandals! What could this mean?
Moses was drawn to the burning bush out of curiosity, that is, for a profane motive. It was because of this that he was not allowed to enter this place that had been consecrated by the Lord's apparition. Moses had to take off whatever did not belong to his nature, since man can only appear before the face of God as he is in himself, free of any external things not belonging to his nature. Whatever belongs to the world and not to man's essential nature must be set aside before he can come into the presence of the Lord.
If, then, the church is the Father's House, then man must feel and act entirely differently than in his own house. He must leave at the door everything that is of the world because he is not the master of this House. An attitude of prayer is the only thing that a man can bring with him as he enters the church.
This is the reason why our Lord so severely forbade the merchants from engaging in worldly affairs in the temple of Jerusalem.
The church as a house of prayer is the material expression of the church as the House of God.
Both clergy and faithful must come to this realization before they can truly appreciate and zealously protect the church from any and all expressions of the world.
Unfortunately, so many Catholics have either forgotten or have never learned what every genuine Catholic knew and took for granted years ago. The clergy knew that this was the House of God and that nothing profane may enter into this sacred place.
This is the reason why both clergy and the faithful must dress differently when in church than when in the world outside this sacred place.
The altar rail is there not only for the convenience of distributing Holy Communion. The altar rail separates the faithful from the consecrated clergy. Only the consecrated (anointed) clergy are permitted to enter this area of the church because it is the place of the holy of holies.
The clergy wear distinctive garb when performing some liturgical function or even when merely present in the sanctuary. Secular priests wore their soutane over which a white surplice is worn. And where there were no clerics in minor orders, worthy young men were allowed to wear the distinctive dress of the cleric as substitutes.
The faithful, too, had their "Sunday best". That is to say, they dressed in a manner worthy of the dignity, sanctity and solemnity of the place they were to attend: the House of God.
Nothing is more indicative of a loss of true understanding of what the church edifice is than to observe with what careless abandon people attend religious services.
The faithful are in no way permitted to enter this sacred edifice unless appropriately attired. The slovenly habits of an undisciplined society should have no hearing in the House of God.
As the Introit for the Mass of the Dedication of a Church reminds us: "It is the house of God, and the gate of heaven: and it shall be called the court of God."
There is no plausible excuse for believers to appear in church dressed as if they were going to some profane entertainment. It is not only the consecrated clergy that are bound to appear in special dress when in the House of God, but this obligation extends to every baptized Catholic who has been consecrated by the waters of Baptism and some even by the chrism of Confirmation.
Observe the true and profound sentiments of the Church uttered through Her consecrated ministers: "O God, Who, though unseen, upholdest all things, and yet for the salvation of mankind showest visible signs of Thy power, give glory to this temple by the might of Thy indwelling, and grant that all who gather here to pray, in whatever trouble they shall cry unto Thee, may obtain the blessing of Thy heavenly consolation."
And, finally, may the words of St. Matthew remind one and all of where we enter when we enter the church: "My house shall be called a house of prayer, saith the Lord: in it everyone who asks receives; and he who seeks finds and to him who knocks it shall be opened." (Matt.21, 13).
Our churches have been changed from their true purpose as the House of God and have become the House of Man! It is for this reason that there is no longer anything holy in those edifices where once God dwelled. They have been converted into nothing more than dens of robbers and thieves who steal the honor and glory that belongs to God alone.
Satan is unable to dethrone God from His heaven, but he has succeeded in creating new gods who now gather in their profaned temples to worship themselves.
When churches are neglected, the meaning is clear: Those who neglect to maintain the sacredness of our churches objectively symbolize their desire not to be with God.
The church edifice is the concretization of God's mysterious presence among His people. No one can truly desire heaven who does not desire to be worthily present in God's House. For, whoever turns his back on the symbol of salvation, turns his back on salvation itself. Likewise, he who turns his back on the mystical presence of God in the holy temple, turns his back upon that same God in heaven.
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