Why do we worship in buildings instead of in God’s beautiful creation?

Posted by Alice L. Camille
Tuesday 29, November 2016 | Category:   Doctrines & Beliefs

Church building
The word temple means "to be cut from": to be separate from ordinary use and reserved for sacred encounter.

The fixed sanctuary of meeting between God and mortals is an old concept. Your instinct is correct that creation seems perfect for the job. Sacred space is meant to display the cosmos in miniature: a unified center where heaven, earth, and the underworld intersect. Just as mountains reach into the heavens, and roots push deep into the soil, the holy place conjoins the three anciently acknowledged realms. The achievement of this unity is evident in the designs of temples, cathedrals, pyramids, ziggurats, pagodas, monoliths, and even the towering sacred trees venerated in northern lands.

As in many religions, the Judeo-Christian tradition regards this design as divinely supplied. So Moses gets the blueprint for a sanctuary from God at Sinai, as does King Solomon for the Jerusalem temple. Ezekiel receives a revitalized one in a vision after the first temple is destroyed. John at Patmos envisions the Lamb as an incarnate temple in the reign of God at the end of time. In these episodes (which have parallels across ancient cultures), the leader or seer is given precise measurements for the job, including careful attention to the worship space’s orientation toward nature’s four directions and often including a source of living water. Other traditions incorporate architectural elements to interact with the sun and moon, and the seasonal calendar. The design of sacred space always acknowledges the superiority of God’s world design and is not intended to replace it, but rather to celebrate it.

Attention is likewise paid to the meaning of creation, and not just its patterns. The story of creation—again, in our biblical tradition and in other world religions—is a triumph of divine order over primordial chaos. Sacred geometry is therefore strictly observed in these designs, which explains the astonishing exactness of many structures from antiquity, as well as the patience of builders who begin a cathedral which none of them will see completed.

The word temple means "to be cut from": to be separate from ordinary use and reserved for sacred encounter. Our word contemplate reflects the understanding that contemplation is an activity enhanced by the temple, and also that the temple’s mysteries ideally reside inside the worshipper as well as around him or her. Jesus epitomized this understanding when he identified his own body with the Jerusalem temple. Paul repeated this teaching when he called each believer a temple. The more we consider sacred space, the more it can teach us.

Scripture: Genesis 28:10-22; Exodus 25-31; 1 Kings 5:15-7:51; Isaiah 28:16; Ezekiel 40-47:12; Matthew 16:18; John 2:13-22; 1 Corinthians 3:16-17; Revelation 21:22-22:5

Books: The Temple: Meeting Place of Heaven and Earth – John Lundquist (London: Thames & Hudson, 2012)

How to Read a Church: A Guide to Symbols and Images in Churches and Cathedrals – Richard Taylor (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press/HiddenSpring, 2005)

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