How Lovely Is Your Dwelling Place

by Rev. Romanos V. Russo
photos by Milton Baroody

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O Heavenly King, Who are everywhere present and filling all things, treasury of blessings and giver of life, come and dwell within us and cleanse of all stain and save our souls, O Good One.

This prayer begins every service in the Byzantine Rites. It clearly teaches that God is everywhere and especially within the faithful themselves. Why then, do we Eastern rite Catholics feel the need to build churches and to pray to God in them? If God is everywhere, what need is there of a church building? If God is always, why come together at appointed times? Isn’t there a contradiction here between belief and practice? Tradition dating back to the Old Testament answers our question.

God is eternal and omnipresent – that is, He exists outside the dimensions of space and time. But mankind lives in a finite world marked especially by space and time. We live here. We live now.

The problem then arises: how to live here and now with our God who exists beyond space and time? Men vacillated between two tendencies: either to worship God in everything and everyone, (pantheism), or to say that God, being outside time and space, is nowhere and therefore non-existent, (atheism).

The solution lay beyond the groping minds of natural man until God Himself showed the way in the Old Testament. By creating sacred space and sacred time, God enabled man to experience His presence everywhere and always – a Divine Presence beyond the realm of the senses. From the Ark of the Covenant to the Temple in Jerusalem with its regular sequence of prayer and sacrifice during the hours of the day and night the Old Testament Church was brought into communion with the Eternal and Everywhere God. In the New Testament this movement of Divine Condescension brought to perfection: Christ Himself becomes the New Temple and all those baptized into Him become other Christs – manifesting God’s presence here and now.

For this reason Christians build churches where they can come together – apart from the gloom of this world – to realize their role as bearers of light in the darkness. In Your Light we shall see the light. (Ps 36:9) Here the Christian beholds the luminous splendour of God as a sign of his own calling to irradiate the world with the love of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Therefore, the church building, of its very nature, must be different from the dismal world around it. It must be nobler, more beautiful. In the Latin tradition, it is drawn heavenward by one or more lofty spires pointing to the ‘beall and end-all’ of life, Christ reigning triumphantly from His Cross. In the East the Church is crowned by a spacious dome – emblem of heaven descending to earth, in which we see the All-powerful Christ into Whom we are being transformed.

After he has lavished every perfection of human skill on the building, man must contemplate its true nature – it is no less than an image of Christ. And if an image of Christ, then an image of the Christian himself for we are other Christs in whom the Divinity dwells bodily. (Col 2:9) This revelation or theophany occurs during the solemn Consecration of a Church.

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Tags: Eastern Christianity Prayers/Hymns/Saints Reflections/Inspirational