Sunday, November 18, 2018

Reign of Christ: On Earth as In Heaven

My kingdom is not of this world. So says Jesus to Pilate (John 18:36). But we pray, Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Perhaps the core of what we know is that although Christ's kingdom is not of this world, having it in this world would transform this world. Living in that tension has offered opportunities for Christ's church to consider what that world would look like in this world.

"The church is not a building...the church is the people." So goes the children's song. However, in times past, the church building was as much intentional theological statement as building. The structure was designed to tell about the God who was worshipped there. I suppose the same is true today, though with perhaps less intention. Two particular ecclesiastical architectural traditions speak to Christ's kingdom on earth and in heaven.

Early Roman churches were often a basilica style. Basilica churches were rectangular, like the Roman civic building on which they were based. Basilicas were places where court cases were heard, where markets were held, and where meetings took place. At the east end of the basilica was an apse where Christian churches located the altar. The root of the Latin word basilica is the Ancient Greek βᾰσῐλῐκή (basilikḗ), from βᾰσῐλῐκὴ στοά (basilikḕ stoá, royal hall). One step further back linguistically is βασιλικός (basilikós, royal), from βασιλεύς (basileús, king, chief). By its very name, the basilica acknowledges that this place is related to some kind of kingdom.

A second, perhaps broader, understanding comes from the Orthodox tradition, whose buildings are designed to be the New Jerusalem. When a worshipper enters an Orthodox church it is to be as if entering heaven. Light enters from (usually) high windows, reflecting off gold in mosaics and icons, bouncing around the space and filling it with a golden glow. Thick, heavy walls are showered with rays of  light. In its most simple form, the church represents the idea of heaven and earth together.

(Top) Hagia Sophia. 532-537. Istanbul, Turkey.  (Bottom) S. Apollinare in Classe. Consecrated 549. Ravenna, Italy.
The basilica's single axis (usually east-west) allowed for a processional approach to the altar. The faithful moved along the life of faith toward the ultimate goal of heaven (symbolized by the altar under the domed apse) on this single axis. Orthodox churches offered multiple axes by combining the rectangular aspect of the basilica with the dome of the apse. Church builders shortened the basilica from a rectangle to a square to symbolize earth (think about phrases like "the four corners of the earth). This square form was crowned with a round dome, symbolizing heaven (think about the upside down bowl of the firmament). Heaven and earth merge in these worship spaces, giving the opportunity for worship to happen on earth as it is in heaven.

What does your worship space say about the kingdom of God?

For additional thoughts on the Reign of Christ, click here, here, or here.
This week on Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page, illustrations of "Thy kingdom come."

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