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The Joy of Sacred Space

"I was glad when they said to me,

“Let us go to the house of the Lord!”" (Psalm 122:1)

Much of the Old Testament focuses great attention on the First Temple: its construction, its consecration, and in later times, its desecration throughout the reign of several kings and ultimate destruction. In the readings this coming Sunday, we will have the opportunity to reflect upon the destruction of the First Temple. It was a crushing blow to the Jewish people. This place where God had met them was now torn, brick by brick, to the ground.

As modern people, we often resist the idea of sacred spaces. We live in a world of concrete realities, with all the trappings of an invisible world thoroughly scrubbed out. The Christian faith itself stands opposed to this program of radical materialism, but it is a culture in which we are nevertheless formed. In the coming month, we will begin to worship in a building for which many have sacrificed. It will become, through the years, a place of many memories, a place - to borrow T.S. Eliot's phrase - "where prayer has been valid." The faith of our children will be formed there and our own faith nurtured and grown. But, above all, it will be a place where we will meet God. It will be set apart for that purpose, it will be a place where the stark and modern division between heaven and earth will become thin, where our categories of safety will fall away.

For the Jewish people, the Temple brought them great joy. Indeed, it is magnificent to see their descendants gather at the ruins and mourn, but with a degree of joy, for what is left. While I very often feel the need to remind one and all that our new building will be, precisely that, just a building, I'm also convinced that I must say it will be much more than that. I get the sense that we need to challenge many of the modern assumptions which Christians tend to have with regard their houses of worship.

In the time following the Edict of Milan, in which Christians became tolerated in the Roman Empire, Christians built houses of worship following, not only the traditions of the Jewish people, but in line with pagan sensibilities about worship. The Anglican divine Richard Hooker writes of this:

"At the length, when it pleased God to raise up kings and emperors favouring sincerely the Christian truth, that which the Church before either could not or durst not do, was with all alacrity performed. Temples were in all places erected. No cost was spared, nothing judged too dear which that way should be spent. The whole world did seem to exult, that it had occasion of pouring out gifts to so blessed a purpose. That cheerful devotion which David this way did exceedingly delight to behold, and wish that the same in the Jewish people might be perpetual, was then in Christian people every where to be seen."

First, we must say that beauty matters. It's important that our churches reflect our deepest convictions about what is good and laudable, what is beautiful, and consequently - what is grotesque. The architectural form and adornment of Christian churches tells us what we should love, especially as we are giving ourselves over to the life of the Trinity. Churches should be filled with beautiful objects: works of art, vessels, flowers, etc.

Second, we have an opportunity to challenge the impression of post-Christian culture that churches are just auditoriums or concert halls, constructed merely for the proclamation of a message or the hearing of music. Instead, our churches should facilitate participation in the heavenly realm - reflecting not only Christian fellowship with God, but one-ness with the things of Christian liturgy, on the deepest level, means showing up to work. It is no passive thing. We labor in worship on behalf of a world bound in sin and death, a world whose vision has been impaired. I believe our new building facilitates this work rather well - inviting worshippers to approach the throne of grace boldly!

Third, our churches should be places for silence and prayer - retreats from a world of noise and discord. Archbishop Charles Chaput has recently written that "silence is water in the desert of modern desire." Allow me to be frank. In our planting of Christ Church, there has been a certain tolerance for conversation in and among the chairs prior to worship. In this new building, we very much need to cultivate a practice of holy silence prior to, and after the celebrations of the Eucharist, reserving conversation for the parish hall.

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