In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen. Well, dear brothers, thank you for the invitation to be with you. This is my last talk, which I want to spend a more careful time, reading a lecture, actually, to you, because it’s on a more complicated subject than what we’ve talked about so far. I’ve entitled this talk: “The House of God: A Consecrated Temple and a Consecrated People.” What I hope to do is talk about our theology of church consecration and how it relates to our theology of human consecration and how the two go hand-in-hand in our tradition.
I’d like to start by telling you the story, an aspect from the life of the holy hieromartyr Lucian, who was a priest of the Church of Antioch. He lived during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, was born about 240, and he was raised in the great city of Antioch. When he was young, he went to Edessa, where he became a Christian under the spiritual direction of the Elder Macarius, who bequeathed to him his great love of the Scriptures for which he was so famous in Church history. He was recalled—after becoming kind of a man of reputation—he was called to Antioch, and he was ordained a priest. He founded the famous school of the exegetes there, where he taught scripture exegesis.
He had tremendous influence for the Church, and he was, for this reason, arrested and brought to trial in Nicomedia. In fact, when he was brought up on trial, his countenance was so persuasive that when he was arraigned before the emperor, the emperor had a screen placed between him and Lucian so that the emperor wouldn’t see his face and wouldn’t become convinced to become a Christian. He was condemned to die of hunger in prison, and many of the faithful came to receive his blessing, and on the day of Theophany, there were so many Christians visiting him that there was some leniency given to them to be with him, and they brought bread and wine and served the holy Liturgy.
In fact, the Liturgy was served by St. Lucian on his own chest, since they had no altar and they were in prison. According to the Synaxarion of the Monk Macarius from Simonopetra, the monastery, this altar was “the altar most worthy of God, who created man in his image.” Such a liturgical act by the holy martyr was not viewed as unrefined by the Church but as spiritual. In fact, St. Jerome, in his famous text On Illustrious Men, begins his paragraphs about the life of Lucian the Presbyter by calling him a “very cultivated man.” In the text of St. Lucian’s Life, published by St. Demetrius of Rostov, the saint is recorded to have uttered, just before the commencement of the Liturgy, these words:
Gather around me and form a congregation, for I believe that the Church which is living pleases God more than the one made of wood and stone.
This distinction between the church of wood and stone and the church of the living, or human church, is a very important distinction in our theology, and the definition of these two types of churches and their interplay, the interplay of the holiness of both, the church building and the living stones, the lithoi zōntes in St. Peter’s words from his epistles… [Sings with bells] Fr. John Parker, are you going to edit that out: the English bells? Or should we keep that in? I like those English bells. The interaction between the church made of people, the holy people of God, and the church physical, of stones, is what I want to talk to you about, the oikos pnevmatikos, the spiritual house of God.
Most of our consecration service that we use throughout the churches for consecrating temples comes from the texts for September 13, which are the celebration of the consecration of the church of the Anastasi in the Holy Land, which we universally celebrate the day before the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. The texts for this service demonstrate the dual nature of consecration, and they help us to see the interrelationship between a consecrated material temple and a consecrated people. After affirming the ancient law, what’s called the ancient law of church consecration, in the very first stichera of vespers, the texts for this feast day continue by calling on the believers to be consecrated:
Be ye consecrated, O brethren, and, putting off the old man, walk ye in newness of life, putting a bridle upon all things whence cometh death. Let us chasten all our members, hating every evil food of the tree, and remembering things past, only that we might flee from them. Thus is a man consecrated, and thus is the day of consecration honored. (From the first stichera of vespers for September 13.)
This connection between church building consecration and people consecration is made evident again in the first of the sessional hymns for matins.
By means of his coming, Christ hath filled all things with his light. Our souls are now consecrated, and by his Holy Spirit he hath renewed the world. For a house is founded to the Lord’s praise and glory, wherein Christ our God, for the salvation of mortals, doth consecrate and hallow the hearts of all his faithful flock.
All the theotokia throughout the service of September 13 emphasize how the Virgin has become the most holy house of God, the holy of all tabernacles for the living God. The Church is described as deifying man, because it becomes a house of prayer, which is the deifying virtue. This is what the church temple is all about. It’s a huge flag, a consecrated beacon of the kingdom of God on earth, and a huge flag waving to call everyone into a life of prayer which will transform them by a union with God. Ode seven, from the canon for the consecration, says this:
Ye that be wounded with the sweetest divine longing, come, let us be united to Christ the Bridegroom in this mystical bridechamber as we shout, “Blessed art thou, the Lord of Glory!”
The church is called a mystical—the physical church, of stone, is called a mystical bridechamber, bridal chamber.
Perhaps the most effusive description of the newly consecrated church of the Anastasi is found in the praises:
On this day, with joy of heart is consecrated the venerable and divine and most-luminous and sacred and splendid house of Christ’s resurrection. And the holy sepulcher giveth life unto the world and doth provide it with an immortal spring. It welleth up with streams of grace, it gusheth rivers of miracles, it doth grant healings to them that now faithfully sing its praise.
Venerable, divine, most-luminous, sacred, and splendid—all of those are the descriptive adjectives of the physical house of God which was consecrated there at the holy sepulcher. What incredible description. Really it says that the church is piling these great descriptions of honor to build this mountain of praise for a consecrated church temple which becomes the model for all successive Orthodox churches.
In response to the reality of God’s presence, being centered in our midst in our churches, the fourth stichera from the praises reads:
Be consecrated, be consecrated, O New Jerusalem, for thy light is come and the glory of the Lord hath risen upon thee. This house hath the Father built, this house hath the Son made steadfast, this house hath the Holy Spirit inaugurated, who enlighteneth and establisheth and sanctifieth our souls.
The connection between heaven and earth, expressed in the apolytikion of the feast of the consecration of the church of the Anastasis says:
Thou hast shown the earthly beauty of the holy tabernacle of thy glory to be like unto the splendor of the heavenly firmament, O Lord. Strengthen it forever and ever and accept our prayers which we unceasingly offer therein unto thee through the Theotokos, thou who art the life and resurrection of all.
Here the apolytikion itself connects the glory and splendor of the physical house of God that’s consecrated to the heavenly firmament. It says that one expresses the other and that they’re intimately joined.
So those are just a few examples from the Life of St. Lucian, talking about the two-fold—he establishes this paradigm of two-fold consecration: human holiness and literal temple holiness. And then from the consecration of the church of the Anastasi from September 13, which provides a paradigm that the service for the consecration of temples comes from.
Having shared those two things, I want to talk about some basic principles: the Church’s teaching about holy space; to draw from those examples and some others principles on what the Church says about holy space. The first principle is about how it’s uncontainable. God is uncontainable. Isaiah 66:1:
Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where there is the house you could build for me? Where is the place I might rest? For my hand made all of these things. Thus, all these things came into being.
When God speaks to us, it’s as though he lisps, like a parent talking to an infant: “Goo goo goo, gaa gaa gaa.” We say all those cute little things. This is an image of God speaking to us, condescending to us. In fact, it’s a wholly inadequate image, but it can help us, I think. It’s actually a much further condescension on God’s part to speak to us, for the transcendent and uncreated Godhead to speak in human language. When he dwells in our midst, he condescends for the dwelling of the Persons of the Holy Trinity is uniquely within the other Persons of the Godhead: the Father dwelling in the Son and the Spirit, the Son and the Father in the Spirit, and the Father and the Spirit in the Son.
Whatever magnificence and beauty the pious might be enabled by God’s grace to infuse into a sacred building, however grand and awe-inspiring a church temple might be, the very height and pinnacle of human effort and creativity, by the inspiration of the Spirit, whatever that is, still, in the words of Bishop Basil of Wichita, he says, “Still, the best and highest is like refrigerator art.” Parents taking their three-year-old’s drawing and putting it on the refrigerator. It’s there and it’s honored by us because it’s such an expression of their love, but that’s all it is compared to the glory that is really worthy of God. The heaven is his throne. He dwells beyond the heavens.
This is the first point: that God is uncontainable, and our best efforts at making churches and consecrating them to his glory are accepted by him because he’s our Father and he loves our efforts, and as impressed as we might be, refrigerator art is the image.
Number two, I want to say a little bit about the scriptural history of holy space. Any basic perusal of redemptive history as recorded in the Scriptures brings one very quickly and repeatedly to the reality of holy space. Consecrated people consecrate space for the worship of God. Mankind was fashioned and planted in the paradise of delight. Our home, our true home as human beings is holiness in the presence of God, and our removal from that sanctity and from that relationship, from that original home, was drenched with tears and weeping. Since Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden, the human race has yearned to recover paradise lost, and the Lord God transported our first parents just outside of paradise initially so that they could look back and see it and see the angel guarding it and remember what had happened, where they had come from, and that their desire to recover paradise and their true home would be nourished by that sight.
The patriarch Abraham built his altars everywhere he went in order to call upon the name of the Lord. Jacob had his consecrated pillar built as the house of God at Bethel, and his ladder upon which the angels of God ascended and descended. The holy prophet and God-seer Moses on Sinai left the house of false gods in Egypt in order to ascend Sinai. There he had a vision of the heavenly temple and received from God the command to build an earthly replica that we know as the tabernacle or portable holy place and worship center.
It was the portal between heaven and earth. Within it was the resting place of God, upon the cherubim on the mercy-seat of the ark of the covenant. This tabernacle, hovered over by a pillar of fire at night and a pillar of cloud by day, communicating the presence of God. It was placed at God’s command in the center of the 3,000,000-strong Jewish sojourn in the wilderness. It was surrounded at all points of the compass by three different Hebrew tribes. Upon it God’s presence dwelt, his shekhinah. It was a place of communion between Moses and the Lord, and Moses also received from the Lord a vast amount of inspired guidance for the adornment of the tabernacle and the holy service that was to take place within it.
Once the people of God were settled in the Holy Land, and could take the porto-temple and make it a permanent temple, they did so. King David conceived within his heart—which was a heart for God, the only person in all of the Scriptures described that way—when his heart for God drove him to want to build a permanent temple of glory for God, his aspirations, while godly, were not able to be completed, since he was a man of war and blood was on his hands, and the Lord God assured him that his son Solomon, a king of peace, would build the holy temple. And David spent the last 20 years of his life designing the temple, executing its architectural plans, gathering the precious materials for its construction, assembling the artisans that were necessary, and stirring up the hearts and minds of the people to embrace the task so that, upon his demise and his son’s enthronement, immediately the temple could be built; and it was.
King Solomon accomplished what his father designed, and built a house for God without equal in beauty and magnificence in the whole earth. Stretching out his hands while kneeling on the day of the temple consecration, Solomon praised the Almighty and asked that the place might be of special concern to the Lord, that his eyes, God’s eyes, might dwell and constantly be fixed upon this place, and that God’s ears might be attuned to the prayers that were offered there, day and night, in a special way. The Lord God answered this prayer and this wish for consecration with a display of his glory which filled the house to such a degree that the priests were not able to enter to perform their priestly ministries, because the house was full of smoke and incense—divine presence.
This temple was cherished by the people of God for hundreds of years. Due to their sins it was destroyed by the forces of Babylon under King Nebuchadnezzar around 587 BC. Nebuchadnezzar took the sacred vessels and the temple furnishings to Babylon, and it was these that his descendant Belshazzar was defiling in his debauched state, in his orgiastic parties, praising the gods of gold and silver, when the hand on the wall appeared, writing, “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsim—you have been weighed in the scales and found lacking.” And the Persians laid him low that very night, the very night of his raucous party. Herodotus has a beautiful description of how the Persians came and were able to unseat Belshazzar, coming through the plumbing system, the sewer system, under the great walls which gave Belshazzar false confidence, that even though they were outside the gates they would never get in. In fact, the appearance of that hand on the wall summoned his death.
Under Ezra the scribe, and with the blessing of King Cyrus of the Medo-Persian Empire, thousands of exiles returned, and though they had no homes to indwell, and though the walls of the holy city were in ruins and had not yet been built, such was the centrality of the holy temple that they chose to rebuilt it first. It was a tremendous witness. The most dramatic and courageous way of reaffirming the centrality of divine worship at the very heart of the people of God, more important than their houses, more important than even their physical safety in building the walls. They built the temple again first.
For hundreds of years to come, this temple, though a pale image of Solomon’s, served as the center of the Jewish cult, and it was honored by our Lord Jesus Christ, who was presented as a babe in its precincts, who questioned the scribes within it as a twelve-year-old, and who purified it with a whip when consumed with zeal for the house of his Father, who healed the sick and taught regularly the truth within this holy place, and ultimately prophesied its utter and complete destruction by Roman forces in the clearest of terms. And the holy Fathers have affirmed that it will never be rebuilt, contrary to the heretics of our own time who tell us that somehow the prophecy of Ezekiel 40-48 means that the Jews are going to go back to Israel, establish a secular state as though that’s the fulfillment of prophecy, and rebuild the Jewish temple.
Our Lord prophesied that the temple would be destroyed and that he would raise it up in three days: the fulfillment of Old Testament types in himself, for he was speaking of the temple of his body, St. John tells us, was prophesied long before by the holy prophets. The day would come when the tabernacle would cease, for the Son of God would come himself to “tabernacle” among us. And the day would come when the old temple would crumble to dust, because the temple of Christ’s body would arise. In all of the experience of the people of God in the old covenant with worship and holy space came to its telos in Jesus himself, in his flesh.
Christ is the true temple, the ultimate Priest. He is the holiness, the sacrifice, the altar, the wisdom of the amvon. He is the literal holy place, and by incorporation into him, all are sanctified, appropriated to God, and set apart. To move in the consecrated holy temple is another way to describe being in Christ, St. Paul’s favorite image for the Christian life: “en Christo.” Paul Evdokimov describes this very beautifully. He says:
When Christ says to the Samaritan woman, “The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem,” he is speaking of himself as the omnipresent sacred space, who abolishes the exclusivity of every empirical space. Ever since then, every visit to the church has a been a pilgrimage to sacred space. So although there are so many such places, each one is truly a center, because their centrality is not geographic, but cosmic, determined not horizontally but vertically, and therefore united with the transcendent wherever in geographical space they happen to be.
That is an incredible quote from Evdokimov, back when he was really good, before he lost his sharpness and started writing crazy things at the end of his life.
St. Gregory of Nyssa, in his treatise On Pilgrimage, attempts to alter the mind of fourth-century Christians, because the mind of fourth-century Christians had become fixated on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The geography of the Holy Land—where our Savior had been born, where he walked, where he performed his miracles, suffered, died, and rose again—has always been precious to believers—and at some times more precious than others, and at the fourth century, it was at a height of frenzy for Christians to visit the Holy Land—but St. Gregory thought that the mind of many pilgrims needed to be more fully Christianized by being reminded that holiness is not ultimately determined by horizontal geography, even if our Lord’s feet touched that very dirt, but by vertical geography, using the images of Evdokimov here.
Hence St. Gregory argued in his treatise On Pilgrimages, that the holiest place on earth, the place to which Christians should be making pilgrimage, was not Jerusalem. It was, rather… Cappadocia! [Laughter] Why? Because Cappadocia had the highest concentration of consecrated altars and churches in the Christian world. So he said, look, if you really want to make pilgrimage to the kingdom of God, stop going to Jerusalem and come here. [Laughter] Cappadocia, this is the place to come. We have the most altars of all! It tells you something about the Christian mind and the significance of what a church is.
God cannot be contained. He is uncreated. He permeates creation, but he dwells uniquely in some places in his condescension. He is everywhere, but not everywhere in the same way. God made the world, but he chose from the cosmos the planet Earth. Within the earth, he chose the Holy Land. From all of the peoples of the nations, he chose the Hebrews. Within the Holy Land of the Hebrews, promised to the patriarch Abraham, he chose the holy city of Jerusalem. Within the holy city of Jerusalem, he chose the holy temple, built over the threshing floor of Ornan. Within the holy temple, he chose the holy of holies. Within the holy of holies, he chose the ark of the covenant. And within the ark of the covenant, he chose the footstool on top of the ark, upon the wings of the cherubim, where his shekhinah-glory dwelt and radiated.
And into this holy place, he brought the most-holy Virgin, the Theotokos and Ever-virgin Mary, and within her womb, he chose his only-begotten Son to become incarnate, joining creation, human nature, to the very Godhead in a hypostatic union, without confusion, commingling, separation, or division. And in this one and only theanthropos, all believers are incorporated and made holy as living stones, members of the very body of Christ, the temple of the living God. And one day the entire world will be swallowed up in its holiness. All will be holy to the Lord, in the words of the Prophet Zecharias, even the pots in the kitchen and the saddles of the horses will say, “Holy,” to the Lord. The whole sacred-secular distinction that we know today will be done away with.
This is the summary of the testimony of holy Scriptures. In fact, more chapters are devoted in the Scriptures to consecrated space and to the building of the earthly tabernacle itself than are found, for instance, in the entire book of Romans. This demonstrates the Lord’s concern for his dwelling among men, for how he is worshiped, and for sacred space on the earth. In fact, the first person mentioned in the Scriptures as being “filled with the Holy Spirit” was not a Christian—but we’re so familiar with that language from St. Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians—the first person: Bezalel, the great artisan, ecclesiastical artisan, who built the things for the temple of God, the sacred furnishings. He did so filled with the Spirit.
Point C: The Church teaching is ancient… Remember, number one: God’s uncontainable. Number two, there is such a thing called “holy space,” and it is front and center in the redemptive history and throughout the Scriptures. Number three: The Church teaching is ancient and universal, and is an essential aspect of the authentic phronema of the Church, the Church teaching on consecration. This sense, that the consecration of church temples is an ancient and universal Christian tradition, is expressed in the very first stichera of the divine service commemorating the consecration of the holy church of Christ’s Resurrection that we Orthodox commemorate on September 13. The first thing we say in the stichera is:
It is an ancient and excellent law, to honor festivals of consecration. (An ancient and excellent law.) For the islands are consecrated unto God, as Isaiah says. What is understood thereby is that the churches from the nations, now inaugurated and established, have access to God.
So here the process of church consecration is being said to have been rooted in prophetic vision, in Isaiah’s vision. The Christian practice of worshiping in consecrated, holy space, is borne out by the history of church building. For the first centuries, we worshiped together as illegal assemblies, in the cover of darkness and in the secrecy of private residences. We have archaeological remains of beautiful churches prior to the Edict of Milan in the early fourth century, but these churches’ remains are primarily on the far outskirts of the empire, where military garrisons were thin and the arm of the law not long enough to reach. Following the Edict of Milan, it was as though the Church had been living under the pressure of a compressed spring, restricted by the force of interdict, and once the force was removed, the spring exploded and magnificent church temples were offered to God and consecrated throughout the world.
This began in earnest under the reign of the God-crowned sovereign and Equal-of-the-Apostles Constantine. After his heavenly vision and his initial reorientation towards the Christian faith, Constantine returned confiscated properties to the bishops of the Church. He granted subsidies for the building of churches. He personally commissioned the production of 300 magnificent complete Bibles, of which the Codex Alexandrinus and the Codex Sinaiticus may be examples. He supported his pious mother Helen in the erection of numerous churches in the Holy Land and elsewhere.
He would establish a principle for successive saintly rulers, that the political power should greatly encourage the building of church temples to the glory of the Holy Trinity, and successive saintly kings, including Sts. Theodosius, Justinian, Boris of Bulgaria, Vladimir of Kiev, Alfred the Great of England, Stephen of Hungary, Edward the Confessor, and many more would imitate this practice of Constantine. It was considered kind of one of the standard ways that a king would show himself to be Christian, is that he would place an emphasis on the building and consecration of beautiful church temples to the glory of the Trinity.
The centrality of the consecrated church temple in the life of the Christian community is demonstrated in contemporary times also, by the radical rebuilding of church temples in post-Communist Russia, where, in the last 20— almost 27 years next year, almost 26-and-a-half years since the fall of Communism, there have been one thousand new churches built every year throughout that entire period. About 26,000 new churches have been built in Russia since the fall of Communism. Of course, that’s less than half than the churches that were destroyed, but it just shows you this whole concept I’m describing about the spring. When the political power is removed that is suppressing the expression of Christian worship, it just—boom. By the way, that is approximately… The churches that have been rebuilt since 1988 in Russia is approximately ten times the number of total churches in America, just to get a grasp of the significance of what’s happened there.
What exactly is the relationship between the consecrated people and the consecrated temple? There is a tremendous significance for every Christian in the God-inspired design of traditional church architecture. It’s an edifying action to reflect upon the significant arrangement of the church temple, particularly of the three fundamental areas of the temple: the narthex, nave, and holy place, hiero, sanctuary. This triumvirate manifests the calling of every Christian to a life of purification, illumination, and theosis. This godly arrangement, beginning in the narthex with a memorial to our expulsion from paradise, drives the concept of personal consecration and of striving for the kingdom of God. The architecture promotes theology, expresses it.
St. Symeon of Thessaloniki says the whole divine temple is conceived as three-fold. What precedes the nave, the nave, and the sanctuary. This signifies the Trinity and the ranks of those on high ordered in three. I mean the clergy, the faithful in good standing, and the penitents. But the shape of the divine temple also represents what is on earth, what is in heaven, and what is above the heavens. The narthex being the earth, the nave the heavens, and the most-holy sanctuary that which is above the heavens. This personalization of the temple is manifested in how we treat the altar and the temple like we do the human person. Let me repeat that. This personalization of the temple is expressed by us in how we treat our altar and how we treat the actual church building itself in the way that we treat a human person.
Unconsecrated church buildings, which are so normal in America, where we are significantly a missionary Church, are like catechumen buildings. They are just waiting for holiness. Like the catechumen on the day of his reception into the holy Church of God on Great and Holy Saturday, we orient the church temple to the East as we do the person. Then we wash and anoint her. Then we chrismate her. Then we sanctify her with relics. Then we clothe her with radiant vestments. Then we give her candles and new light. Then a guardian angel is appointed for her. Then names are written on the list above, the book of life in heaven for the newly baptized and the founders’ list in the altar. It is an end and a beginning both, just as baptism for an individual is an end and a beginning.
St. Symeon of Thessaloniki says that at the heart of the altar we place the relics of the saints. The sacred relics of the martyrs lie beneath the altar, since they are always present in spirit with Christ, the great Martyr of the Father. It’s as though that experience with Lucian in prison is perpetually expressed in all of our altars by having the relics of the martyrs in the altar. But the altar also contains them as foundations of the Church, for the Church came into being first by the blood of Christ and then, through him, by the blood of the martyrs. It’s anointed with chrism because it is full of the energy of the Spirit; the temple is full of the energy of the Spirit, and it possesses the living, consecrated chrism. The altar possesses the energy of the Spirit; the holy place exudes divine power. The sacred temple is the abode of God, and its altar-heart pumps the blood of Christ into his people.
The holy temple is consecrated as we are consecrated, and we share the same kingdom reality. We move in the same atmosphere of the Spirit. We liturgically process around our temples, tracing thereby the symbol of eternity and marking the reality of sacred space. We actualize our true home when the consecrated people of God meet in the consecrated temple of the Lord. This is our true home, our true clothing, and a standing within her is a standing within the kingdom of God. We ought not speak of consecrated churches simply as buildings. They are not simply buildings. They are holy temples. Hear the words of the fifteenth-century archbishop of Thessaloniki, the great anti-Islamic zealot, preacher and hierarch, in his work, An Explanation of the Divine Temple. He says:
Although the temple consists of worldly material, it nevertheless possesses otherworldly grace, for it is consecrated by the bishop with mystical prayers and anointed with divine chrism, and the whole of it is made into the abode of God.
While making a distinction between the living temple of people and the consecrated temple of wood and stone, we ought [to] be careful not to make an inappropriate separation. There is no separation. We must avoid false dichotomies that separate Christ from the temple or the people of God from the temple. Holy altars, consecrated temples are outposts of heaven, and the natural milieu of true Christians.
I had a couple, a Russian couple, Nick and Vera Kislak, in my parish. God rest their souls, they’ve been gone maybe five or seven years now. They both reposed, but in their later years it was getting very… In their 80s, it was getting very hard for them to come to church as often. With our old people, it’s hard to move; it’s hard to get out of bed, let alone get in your car and drive 30 minutes to go to church. I can’t tell you how many times I heard from them that the second they crossed the threshold of the church their pains were removed. They worshiped in happiness and they were so thankful that they came. They said this to me over and over and over again. They were experiencing the reality of consecrated space. Coming into the temple of God deeply altered them.
With the patriarch Jacob, we confess that the house of God is an utterly terrifying reality, just like the saints are. St. John Chrysostom, in his discourses against Judaizing Christians, he comments on Jacob’s experience, and he applies it to our consecrated temples. These are Chrysostom’s words. He says:
Our churches are truly frightening and filled with fear. God’s presence makes a place frightening, because he has power over life and death. In our churches, we hear countless discourses on eternal punishments, rivers of fire, on the venomous worm, on bonds that cannot be burst, and on exterior darkness. Our churches, like the saints, are such realities because they reveal Christ to us. They bear his presence. Standing in the church is like standing in the presence of great saints.
St. Gregory Palamas, in his Homily XX, on the appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene, comments on how Mary benefited by standing in front of the tomb of Christ. He says: “This temple…” He’s speaking now of his church.
This temple is a figure of that cave, or rather it is more than a figure, being almost another such cave, for it has a place where the Master’s body is laid, the area within the veil, and the most-holy temple there. The altar is the tomb. Anyone who is determined to hasten to that truly divine cave that holds God, stands there and remains to the end, gathering his thoughts and lifting them up to God, will not only recognize the words of divinely inspired Scripture, proclaiming like angels the divinity and humanity of the Word made man for our sake, he will also certainly see the Lord with the eyes of his mind and, we can say without exaggeration, his bodily eyes.
For if anyone looks with faith at the mystical table and the Bread of Life placed upon it, he sees the Person of the Word of God, who was made flesh for our sake and dwelt among us. If he shows himself a worthy receptacle, he will not only see but become a partaker of him, receive him to dwell within him, and be filled with his divine grace.
Just as Mary saw what the apostles at that time longed to see, it is impossible for anyone who stands in God’s holy church, collecting his thoughts, lifting his mind to God, occupying his understanding with the sacred singing, from the beginning unto the end, and waiting patiently, not to undergo a divine change in accordance to his attention to God and his teachings. Through this attention, a certain warmth is born in the heart which chases away evil thoughts like flies—(I love that image)—creates spiritual peace and comfort in the soul and bestows sanctification on the body, according to him who said, “My heart was hot within me; while I was musing, the fire burned.”
The temple is the tomb. It’s where one sees the living Christ with the eyes of the body and the soul. It’s the place of personal union and transfiguration and change. Consecrated space and consecrated persons are inescapably mixed and bound.
Once St. John Chrysostom was asked what the shortest path to holiness was, and he said, “The shortest path to holiness is faithful and watchful attendance at the divine services. This is the way to become holy.”
So let me end my thoughts on this by making a few comments about the post-Christian West’s denial of holy space. The radical rejection of the traditional Christian notion of consecration, of consecrated holy space, began very early in the Protestant revolution. After the overthrow of papal authority, Martin Luther was confronted with what to do when the first new so-called Evangelical church was built, the first new Lutheran church, which was the Castle Church in Torgau. It was built as a rectangular hall with two galleries. It had a free-standing altar placed at the front and a pulpit attached to the side wall. The church was dedicated—not consecrated, dedicated—by Martin Luther in 1544, without the traditional Latin service of consecration. It was dedicated, rather, with a sermon in which Martin Luther emphasized that Protestant worship was not bound to holy spaces.
Here we see, as usual, the embrace of false dichotomies that riddle the Protestant movement from the beginning to this very day, as though a traditional church’s use of holy space binds the Christian Church to such things, as if it is not possible to worship God without a consecrated Church temple. The life of St. Lucian, the living altar, and his dungeon church, or the sublime liturgies celebrated in the outdoors in the orchards of Constantinople by the flock of St. John Chrysostom after the great hierarch had been exiled, or the mystical liturgies served in the catacombs or living rooms in newly Communist Russia demonstrate that the issue is not a matter of binding; it’s a matter of grace, of the presence of the kingdom, of the honor of Church temples and of the expression of the hearts of the faithful.
It’s as ridiculous to assert that a firm belief in the reality of the mystery of church consecration prohibits true worship when such a sacred temple is not available, as it is to assert that a firm belief in the miraculous inspiration of the holy Scriptures prohibits one from worshiping the true God if a copy of the holy Scriptures [is] not available. Christian life without the Scriptures is possible, as has been proved by persecuted Christians for centuries, but no one would suggest that such a worship, without the Scriptures, is an expression of freedom, to be proud of, or a condition to be envied. It’s rather a condition to be borne up under in time of necessity until it can be rectified.
We have strong Gnostic influences that oppose the concept of consecrated space. Philip Lee’s famous book, Against the Protestant Gnostics, describes the abandonment of a belief, in the Protestant world, in holy space. I was once invited, ironically, to speak at a very large—one of the three mega-churches in our town, on holy space. They wanted to talk about holy space, and I gave the lecture in their church which is a box! An intentional box. When I was preaching, and afterwards, there was absolute resonance with their people. The affirmation of the non-existence of holy space is one of the least-convincing portions of the Evangelical message. Most of their people endure it rather than celebrate it. And I was fascinated to hear from you, Fr. John, about a church in Charleston that meets in a box but built a pretty little church behind their box for weddings, because their people couldn’t endure getting married in ugly boxes! So they built a chapel for the weddings, but they still have worships… Evidently they’re content worshiping God and honoring him in a box, but not honoring their daughters and their new in-laws, children, in a box.
This Gnostic approach has also deeply affected Roman Catholicism in the last 50 years and has contributed to the post-Vatican II departure from traditional Latin Christian architecture. I remember reading in The Latin Mass Magazine an article, maybe 10 or 15 years ago, entitled, “Churches From Hell.” [Laughter] It was just a documentary of the Roman Catholic churches that had been built since Vatican II and how absolutely hideously ugly they are. The abandonment of sacred architecture in the Latin revolutionary West of late parallels the abandonment of all the sacred arts, not just architecture but also music: the abandonment of Gregorian chant… I remember reading the two books by a very accomplished Catholic priest, a musician named Thomas Day. Maybe you’ve read his books. One is called Why Catholics Can’t Sing, and one is called, Where Have You Gone, Michelangelo?. [Laughter] Fantastic texts about the abandonment of the sacred arts in the West. It’s an abandonment that flows from heretical theology about material and space.
The Los Angeles Cathedral—the largest Catholic archdiocese in America is the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. That archdiocese has 1400 priests, and the late cardinal—he’s not late: late in the sense that he is no longer governing the Church there—Roger Mahony, built a new cathedral in Los Angeles maybe ten years ago. They had a beautiful cathedral, and they even have an Orthodox saint, Vibiana. She was in the center of their cathedral. And then they decided to build a new one. They had the most incredible geographic location for building their new cathedral, right on the 101 Freeway, literally touching the freeway. Talk about evangelistic opportunity. And they built a $189-million monstrosity that you would not even know was a church if you were looking at it if there wasn’t a very simple cross placed on the top. And they took St. Vibiana and put her in the basement in a chapel. Yes, indeed.
Just two or three years ago, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, just south of Los Angeles, purchased for almost $56 million Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral. Can you imagine what a quirk of history that the preacher who was a member of the Reformed Church in America, who was supposed to be bringing Christianity into the modern world, and built a very, very strange-looking church, could be purchased to become the Roman Catholic cathedral of the area? [Laughter] Can you imagine how many Protestant old ladies who gave their millions to build this monstrosity, this temple of modernity, are rolling around in their graves to think that it could become a Latin cathedral that had no shape, no traditional expression of sacred art whatsoever?
One of our witnesses today as Orthodox Christians is to the presence of holy space and to the fact that there is in the mercy of God and his great willingness, though he can’t be contained, he allows himself in his humility to be contained and to be present even in stones of consecrated churches, which are the natural milieu of believers. Our building of churches is not just an expression of our love for God; it is that. It’s not just a way of showing that we think worship is the most important thing in life; it certainly is that, and our people have always put their money where their mouth is. We’ve built churches in our villages and lands, in the center of towns. If you take a train across Europe and you go from one town to another, what do you see right there? You see churches, big—they’re the highest buildings, and they’re in the center. We built our life around the worship of God.
Those things are all magnificent and true, but they are also uniquely outposts of the kingdom of God that change people’s lives. And to bring people into our churches and to express this truth by how we deal with the Church, how we express the Church, how we live in the Church, this is a part of our witness to our compatriots and our fellow Americans. This is a tremendously rich gift that we possess and that we offer to them, and it has a definite effect, of course, on what we do in church, which is why the reverence in our churches is so high. It’s also, by the way, why we don’t chatter in church and turn it into a common place.
Let me end by just saying a few words about our hearts as driving this building of churches. Remember that it was David having a heart for God that led him to want to build a house for God. Ezekiel the prophet described the temple beautifully in language that he used for his own wife. In fact, the words that he used for his wife, he used for the temple. I love this. He calls both his wife and the temple “the desire of his eyes and the yearning of his soul.” First of all, it’s just simply beautiful to call your wife that, “the desire of my eyes and the yearning of my soul,” but that’s what he called the church temple; that’s what he called the Jerusalem temple.
Our churches have been built as a result of prophetic inspiration. Esdras, Haggai, and Zechariah’s prophesying awakened the interest to build the temple. Remember that in those prophets they criticized the people for building their own houses and not God’s house. The appointment of the interior of our churches, so carefully arranged, reflects the appointment of our own interior lives. We appoint our churches to reflect our interior lives.
I’d like to end, if I could find it here, with a word from St. Gregory Palamas about chatter in the temple. Let me end with quotes from two saints. One is from St. Erasmus of the Kiev Caves. This is May 10.
At the Caves was Erasmus the Black-robed. He acquired a legacy of fame because he used everything he possessed for the adornment of the monastery church. He donated many icons which even now may be seen over the altar. The saint experienced great temptations after he had given away his wealth. The evil one began to suggest to him that he should have given the money to the poor rather than spend it on the beautification of the church.
That’s a very common temptation, demonic suggestion, goes all the way back to the twelve apostles and Judas, who was so upset that Mary had spent so much money and broken that precious myrrh onto Christ’s body and said that she should have given it to the poor. That extravagance of offering and making a beautiful house for God is born out of the same love that Mary had to adorn Christ.
The saint experienced great temptations when he had given his wealth. The evil one suggested to him that he should have given his money to the poor rather than spend it on the beautification of the church. St. Erasmus did not understand such thoughts, and he fell into despair and despondency, and he began to live in a careless manner. Because of his former virtue, the gracious and merciful God saved him, and he sent him a grievous illness and the monk lay near death.
In this sickness, Erasmus lay for seven days, unable to see or speak and hardly breathing. On the eighth day, the brethren came to him, and, seeing the difficulty of his approaching death, they said, “Woe to the soul of this brother, for he lived in idleness and in sin. Now his soul beholds something and tarries, not having the strength to leave the body.”
Erasmus suddenly got up, as though he had not been ill, and he said to the monks, “Fathers and brethren, it is true that I am a sinner and have not repented, as you said. Today, however, our monastic fathers, Anthony and Theodosius, have appeared to me, and they said, ‘We have prayed for you, and the Lord has given you time for repentance.’ Then I saw the all-pure Mother of God with Christ in her arms, and she said to me, ‘Erasmus, since you adorned my church with icons, I will also adorn you and exalt you in the kingdom of my Son. Arise, repent, take the angelic schema, and on the third day, you will be taken from this life.’ ”
Having said this, Erasmus began to confess his sins before all without shame, and then went to the church and was clothed in the schema, and on the third day he died. He was buried in the Near Caves, and his memory is celebrated on September 28 and on the second Sunday of Great Lent.
What an encouragement to the building of churches and the adornment of churches and how heaven looks at that.
This last is a quote from St. Gregory Palamas. He says:
What can I say to those people who, in the church, neither stand in silence nor join in the singing, but instead meet one another and mix our reasonable worship of God with worldly chatter? They do not listen themselves to the divinely inspired words, and they prevent others who want to listen from doing so. How long do you halt between two opinions, as Elias the Tishbite would say? You want simultaneously to come together for prayer and for worldly, ill-timed words. Of course, you succeed in neither purpose, because you destroy the one with the other, or rather they destroy each other. How long before you stop talking idly in this place? You make this house of prayer into a place of business or impassioned speech.
In this house, the words of eternal life are spoken and heard. On the one hand by us as we beseech God for eternal life with unashamed hope, and on the other hand by God as he gives eternal life to those who ask with their whole heart and mind, but he will not give it to those who do not even apply their whole tongue, as it were, to asking.
Having a beautiful consecrated church is a high calling on us. I know that in our little parish, when we moved into our church, it was a huge shock, spiritually, just a huge shock, an overwhelming sense that we had built something that was more beautiful than us. I still feel this way, and I feel like the church is calling, it’s speaking, it’s saying, “Come up higher. Come up higher and improve yourself, love more, cultivate the virtues more, so that we can have a resonance between us as a people and the beautiful temple itself, and that holiness will be mutual.”