There and Back Again: Biblical Time and Church Architecture

Summer Time, Biblical Time, and Church Renovations, Oh My!

Summer goes by so quickly. It’s amazing to think that football will be starting soon, and for many school will be restarting! It’s a comfort to know that biblical time is somewhat different than these passing days of summer.

Biblical time stands out from the way other cultures understood time. This is contrasted with the ancient pagan idea that the cosmos was eternal and time was something cyclical, without beginning or end, doomed to repeat without end. It sounds strange and simplistic to say, but biblical time has a beginning and an end to it. Yet, it’s not so dull as all that.

St. Augustine said that he knew what time was until someone asked him what it was. Though there’s so much more to biblical time, I thought it would be beautiful to contemplate an aspect of it.

There and Back Again – an Architectural / Liturgical Journey

When the Israelites celebrated the Feast of Passover, as they recalled God’s mighty works (anamnesis), they were brought into contact with the events themselves. So, it was not simply to those who walked out of Egypt that God saved. Those celebrating the feast thousands of years later can say, “‘By strength of hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of bondage’” (Ex 13:14). By doing the events again, they are remembered (anamnesis) and thus made present: “every time Passover is celebrated, the Exodus events are made present to the memory of believers so that they may conform their lives to them” (CCC 1363).

So it is when we celebrate the sacraments. St. Paul speaks of this mystery of biblical time with regards to baptism: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death” (Rom 6:3-4). How can we be baptized into Jesus’ death when it was so long ago? In the sacraments, Jesus brings us into contact with the mysteries of His saving work for us: we are drawn into His Life.

But it’s not simply some retrospective visit to points in Jesus’ past life, like Ebenezer Scrooge or something. Though we certainly touch the events of Jesus’ life, we are also brought forward in time to the future glory He is bringing! As St. Paul says, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4). We are brought forward to the resurrected life of the glory that is to come!

Eucharistic Reverse and Fast Forward

This Old Testament idea of remembering (anamnesis) is renewed in the New Testament in Jesus’ central action, His Last Supper and Crucifixion. “When the Church celebrates the Eucharist, she commemorates Christ’s Passover, and it is made present: the sacrifice Christ offered once for all on the cross remains ever present” (CCC 1364).

It is in some sense a rewinding of history: “In the Eucharist the Church is as it were at the foot of the cross with Mary, united with the offering and intercession of Christ” (CCC 1370). But the amazing wonder of that reality isn’t all that’s happening: it’s not some mystical rewinding of something we’ve TiVo’d. It also fast forwards us to the eternal glory of the new creation that Jesus came to inaugurate. Indeed, it puts us in contact with those already enjoying the heavenly glory: “To the offering of Christ are united not only the members still here on earth, but also those already in the glory of heaven” (CCC 1370).

Church Building as Vision of Past and Future Glory

It is to this reality of the Sacraments that the church building bears witness: it is the past triumph catching up with us and the future glory coming to meet us ahead of time. Indeed “This earthly church made of stones and steel, then, makes visible the dwelling of God reconciled with men, the glorious city where the decay and death resulting from the Fall are fully transfigured into the radiance of God’s divine life. [The church] becomes an image of the heavenly realities and therefore ‘is’ heaven itself in sacramental terms” (McNamara, Catholic, 40).

3 thoughts on “There and Back Again: Biblical Time and Church Architecture”

  1. Thanks for the thought provoking article. I agree that the biblical concept of time is something that is worth thinking about at length and in depth. For me, one of the real breakthroughs in recent years was coming to understand the sense in which the New Testament really challenges our understanding of how time and history work.

    As I understand NT teaching, we are no longer merely in “this age” and moving toward “the age to come.” Rather, there is a sense in which the advent and particularly the resurrection of Christ represented an in-breaking of the age to come. In other words, those who are in Christ now live in a kind of overlap of the ages. We are in the world, but also resurrected with Christ, a part of the new creation and, as Paul says in Ephesians, seated with him in the heavenly realms. Conceived in this way, Christ is a kind of first man of the new creation, the pioneer and representative forerunner of a new humanity that belongs to the renewed world.

    And, as you indicate, what the bible does with time is at the heart of salvation. Paul says that God chose, knew and loved those who are his before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1), that is, before time was. One with Christ, when he died, I died, when he rose, I rose, and even now I am united body and soul to the resurrected, glorified God-man. Invading my life in history, He took my defilement and poverty, giving me his very own righteousness, sonship and eternal life. It doesn’t get any deeper than that.

    I love the way that Paul, almost overlooking time altogether, surveys the whole landscape of salvation at a glance:

    “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” ~Romans 8:29-30

    Thanks again for the article. Blessings.

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