In yesterday’s readings at Mass we read about how Moses laid out the “tent of meeting” exactly according to the pattern God gave him up on the mountain. A millennium later John described a similar scene of the sanctuary in Heaven.
Few Catholics today realize that God actually did indicate a good deal about how He expects our churches to be designed. And while some degree of variation is allowed and has existed, most modern churches have significantly departed from the instructions God gave. We do well to ponder church architecture not merely as an aesthetic question, but also as a question of fidelity to what God expects.
For the Church, the Scriptures are more than just ink spots on a page. The Scriptures are manifest in proclaiming how we live, how we are organized hierarchically, our sacraments, our liturgy, and even the design of our buildings.
Long before most people could read, the Church was preaching the Gospel. And to do so, she used the very structure of her buildings to preach. Many of our older buildings are sermons in stone and stained glass.
The Scriptures come alive in our art, statues, paintings, and in the majestic stained glass windows that soar along the walls of our churches like jewels of light. Even the height and shape of our older churches preach the Word. The height draws our eyes up to Heaven as if to say, Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at God’s right hand (Col 3:1). And the shape of most of our older churches is that of a cross, as if to say, May I never glory in anything save the Cross of my Lord Jesus Christ (Gal 6:14).
My own parish church is a sermon in stone, wood, and glass. It is designed around the Book of Revelation (Chapters 4 and 5), in which John is caught up into Heaven and describes it in detail. The fundamental design of the sanctuary drawn from Revelation 4 and 5 includes the throne-like altar (Rev 4:2), seven tall candles around the throne (Rev 4:5), and the four living creatures in the clerestory windows above the altar (Rev 4:6-8). At the center of the altar is the tabernacle, wherein dwells the once-slain Lamb who lives forever, Jesus (Rev 5:6). Around the throne (altar) are seated the 24 elders (Rev. 4:4), symbolized by the 12 wooden pillars on the back sanctuary wall and the 12 stained glass windows of the Apostles in the transept. The multitude of angels surrounding the throne (Rev 5:11) are symbolized by the blue and gold diamonds on the apse wall.
I have assembled pictures of these details along with the texts from Revelation in the following PDF document: Holy Comforter Church in Washington D.C. and the Book of Revelation
In effect, the builders of my church (built in 1939) were saying, when you walk into this church, you have entered Heaven. Indeed, it is a replica of the heavenly vision of John. And when we celebrate the Liturgy it is more than just a replica, for we are taken up to Heaven in every Mass, where we join countless angels and saints around the heavenly altar. There, we worship God with them. We don’t have to wait for some rapture; we go there in every Mass.
But there is more! For what John saw in Heaven is none other than what God prescribed to Moses. God told Moses quite explicitly how to construct the ancient sanctuary, the tent of meeting in the desert. The layout, materials, and elements were all carefully described.
And, having given these details, God said, Now have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them. Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you (Exodus 25:8-9). And God later said, See that you make them according to the pattern shown you on the mountain (Ex 25:40). And God repeated, Set up the tabernacle according to the plan shown you on the mountain (Ex 26:40).
The Book of Hebrews explained why God insisted that the pattern be followed so exactly: They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven (Heb 8:5). In other words, the Ancient Temple was meant to be a replica, or pattern of the heavenly sanctuary.
Most older Catholic churches maintain the basic pattern of what Moses was shown. This diagram compares the layout of the sanctuary in my parish church, Holy Comforter St. Cyprian (HCSC), with the layout of the temple:
In the photo just below, you can see the remarkable similarity more visually. The pattern is even etched on the floor of my church, echoing a detail about the layout of the temple that Ezekiel described:
So there were four tables on one side of the gateway [of the sanctuary] and four on the other—eight tables in all—on which the sacrifices were slaughtered (Ez 40:41).
On the left below is a depiction of the setup of the tent of meeting as it was when the people were still in the desert. Next to it is a photo of my parish church sanctuary. You can see the remarkable similarity.
Note the way the scrollwork on the floor of my parish matches the four tables on either side in the sanctuary where the animals were slaughtered. The fiery square and horned altar in the diagram of the temple are represented by the horned square on the floor of my church. In the diagram of the ancient sanctuary, the holy place, the holy of holies towers in the back, as do the high altar and tabernacle in my parish church.
Simply put, the builders of my parish church remarkably depicted the ancient temple as well as the vision of Heaven from the Book of Revelation. This is what church buildings should do: exemplify the heavenly sanctuary, the plan for which God Himself gave. Sadly, modern architecture has departed from that plan significantly. But in recent years, there has been something of a return to that plan, a trend for which we can only be grateful.
The Catholic Church is surely a biblical Church. My very building shouts the Word! We Catholics preach the Word not only with ink and in speech, but also in stone, wood, glass, liturgy, and the arts—all to the glory of God.
Here is a video of some of the details of my parish.