Sunday, March 18, 2018

Psalm 118.19-29: Come On In

Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD. This is the gate of the LORD; the righteous shall enter through it. (Psalm 118:19-20, Liturgy of the Palms)

Do you even pay attention when you walk through the door of your church? Do you mark the transition? Or are you focused on the people you need to talk to, the Sunday School lesson you need to review, the youth activities that are happening after worship? Do you walk into the church building thinking, "This is the gate of the Lord"? Do you imagine that you are making a triumphal entry?

You were meant to think just that when walking into medieval cathedrals. The large, ornate doors (usually at the west end of the cathedral, opposite the apse where the altar is located) were meant to be the gateways to heaven. To enter the building was to be taken away from earth and transported to heaven. But to get there, worshipers were required to walk through the door, the gate. 

The Roman triumphal arch was designed to commemorate the victories of Roman emperors (top photo, Arch of Titus, Rome). The western church incorporated that form into the apse of basilica-plan churches (second photo from top, S. Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna). The triumphal arch stretched over the altar, where Christ's sacrifice is made. Behind the arch was a half-dome. The dome, any dome, symbolizes heaven. The triumphal arch motif in this place reinterprets the understanding of "triumph". For Christians there is triumph in Christ's death and resurrection.

The Roman single-arch structure was further adapted into a three-arch design (third photo from top, Arch of Constantine, Rome). The three-arch triumphal motif was then applied to the front of the cathedrals (bottom photo, west facade, Amiens Cathedral, France). Though Amiens' facade is in the Gothic style (with pointed arches rather than round Roman arches) its larger center arch and smaller side arches echoes Constantine's arch. Do you think that medieval worshipers remembered the idea of triumph as they came to worship? Does the three emperor-inspired arches give us the sense of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem - the entry we call "triumphal". 

One last detail ties Psalm 118 to our cathedral portals: the tympanum sculpture over the center door. Christ sits in majesty over the middle door. This is the gate of the Lord, the psalmist says. The righteous shall enter through it. In the Amiens Cathedral tympanum Christ sits enthroned above the door, judging who is righteous enough to enter through it. 

For worshipers standing at that door, at that portal, this is the gate of the Lord. And the righteous shall enter through it. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

For additional discussion about a triumphal entry, click here.
For additional thoughts on the donkey, click here.
For additional thoughts on the palms, click here.
For thoughts on the rejected cornerstone (118:22), click here.
The entry into Jerusalem on a sarcophagus? See Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page.

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