Where Is the Liturgy Celebrated? (CCC 1179-1186)

Column on Liturgical Theology; Coordinator: Father Mauro Gagliardi

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ROME, JUNE 27, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Concluded with this article is the fourth year of the column “Spirit of the Liturgy,” which this year we dedicated to the liturgical teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in preparation for the Year of Faith. In taking leave of our readers, we offer them an appointment for this coming month of October (Father Mauro Gagliardi).

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By Father Uwe Michael Lang*

Man is characterized in his existence by two fundamental coordinates: space and time, two realities that he does not construct for himself but that are given to him. Man is bound by space and time, and so is his prayer to God. Whereas prayer, in as much as simple religious act, can be done anywhere, the liturgy, instead, in as much as public and ordered worship, requires a place, usually a building, where it can be carried out as a sacred rite.

The edifice of Christian worship is not the equivalent of the pagan temple, where the shrine with the effigy of the divinity was also considered in some way the dwelling of the latter. As Saint Paul says to the Athenians, “God does not live in shrines made by man” (Acts of the Apostles 17:24).

There is, instead, a closer relationship with the Tent of Meeting, erected in the desert according to the instructions of God himself, where the glory of the Lord (shekinah) was manifested (Exodus 25:22; 40:34). However, Solomon, after building the Temple of Jerusalem, edifice that replaced the Tent of Meeting, exclaims: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27). In the history of the people of Israel, a spiritualization occurred, which leads to the famous passage of the Book of the prophet Isaiah: “the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah6:3; cf. Jeremiah 23:24; Psalms 139: 1-18; Wisdom 1:7), a text which then passed into the Sanctus of the Eucharistic Liturgy. “The whole earth is sacred and entrusted to the children of men” (Catechism of the Catholic Church,n. 1179).

 A further stage is present in the Gospel according to John, when Christ says, during his meeting with the Samaritan woman: “But the hour is coming , and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:23). This does not mean, in the light of the Gospel, that there should not be a public worship or sacred building. The Lord does not say that there should not be places for worship in the New Covenant; in the same way, in the prophecy about the destruction of the Temple, He does not say that there should no longer be any building constructed in honor of God, but rather that there should not be only one exclusive place.

Christ himself, his living, risen and glorified body, is the new temple where God dwells and where his universal worship takes place “in spirit and truth” (cf. J. Ratzinger, Introduzione allo spirito della liturgia,San Paolo, Cinisello Balsamo 2001, pp. 39-40). As Saint Paul writes: “For in Him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness of life in him” (Colossians 2:9-10). By participation, on the strength of Baptism, the body of the Christian also becomes temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 6:19; Ephesians 2:22). Using a phrase very dear to Saint Augustine, Christus totus,the whole Christ is the true place of Christian worship, that is, Christ in as much as Head and Christians in as much as members of his Mystical Body. The faithful who gather in one same place for divine worship constitute the “living stones,” come together “for the building of a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:4-5). In fact, it is significant that the word that first indicated the action of Christians of coming together, namely ekklesia – Church – has passed to indicate the place itself in which the gathering takes place. The Catechism of the Catholic Church insists on the fact that the churches (as buildings) “are not simply gathering places but signify and make visible the Church living in this place, the dwelling of God with men reconciled and united in Christ” (n. 1180).

In the early Christian period, the typical form of the church building became the basilica with large rectangular central naves, which end in a semi-circular apse. This type of building corresponded to the needs of the Christian liturgy and, at the same time, gave the builders great liberty for the choice of individual architectural and artistic elements. The basilica also expresses an axial orientation, which opens the assembly to the transcendent and eschatological dimensions of the liturgical action. In the Latin tradition, the disposition of the liturgical space with the axial orientation remained normative and today also it is regarded as the most appropriate, because it expresses the dynamism of a community journeying towards the Lord.  

As Benedict XVI affirms, “the nature of the Christian temple is defined by the liturgical action itself” (Sacramentum Caritatis, n. 41). Because of this, the projection of the sacred fittings (altar, tabernacle, seat, ambo, baptistery, place of Penance) cannot only  follow functional criteria. Architecture and art are not extrinsic elements to the liturgy and do not have a purely decorative function. Hence, the commitment to build or adapt churches must be permeated by the spirit and the norms of the liturgy of the Church, that is, of that lex orandi which expresses the lex credendi, and from this stems the great responsibility of planners and of customers.

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*Father Uwe Michael Lang, C.O., is an Official of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments and Consultor of the Office of Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff.

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