“How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts! My soul yearns and pines for the courts of the LORD. My heart and flesh cry out for the living God” — Psalm 84:2-3
Where is God’s dwelling place? In heaven, primarily, but also in the soul of the Christian in a state of grace, and in the body of the Catholic who receives our Lord in Holy Communion.
But before that, where did God dwell?
He has had many dwelling places: wandering with His chosen people through the desert, He asked them to pitch Him a tent made of fine linen, with the ark of gold and acacia inside and the menorah with cups shaped like almond blossoms. Later, Solomon’s temple was likewise splendid, with carvings of gourds and open flowers all over its cedar paneling and enormous cherubim to guard the Ark of the Covenant. God had settled down in Jerusalem; He had made Himself at home.
And then, wonder of wonders, He dwelt inside the body of the Virgin of Nazareth, was born in a stable, and walked in Bethany and Capernaum. But still, He loved the Temple in Jerusalem. Every year, He made pilgrimage, singing the Psalms, perhaps praying the very words I quoted above. According to John Goldingay’s commentary, Psalm 84 “expresses the worship of people who make pilgrimage for Passover, Pentecost, or Sukkot”, and Jesus, faithful Son of God, was no exception. He yearned for the Temple because it was God’s home and His home; the next part of the same Psalm says:
As the sparrow finds a home
and the swallow a nest to settle her young,
My home is by your altars,
LORD of hosts, my king and my God!
Goldingay also notes that the word “lovely” here literally means something more like “beloved,” a thing that is loved. The connection between these two concepts is clear: even a poor home is loved by its dweller, but the gold and acacia must have made this dwelling in Jerusalem yet more loveable to its pilgrims.
Today, God chooses to dwell in his tabernacle—literally “little tent”, from the Latin tabernaculum—inside every Catholic church. He dwells among us. And we, the faithful, make pilgrimage to our parish churches every Sunday and exclaim at the beauty of the stained glass and turreted high altars within: “How lovely!”
At least, that’s how it ought to be. Sadly, many American churches built in the last few decades hardly inspire the yearning and pining that the Psalmist experienced. Better writers than I have explored the reasons for the shift to ugliness in church-building in the last few decades, but I wish to focus here on the church as a home: as the dwelling place of God, primarily, and secondarily as a home to the faithful.
This concept of church as home is foreign to most of us because, far from being a lovely dwelling place, the modern church is less adorned than the average living room. The adornments of a home say much about its inhabitants; most homes display images of each member of the family at different ages and important moments. Likewise, a church should showcase the Divine Dweller and His family. Traditionally, images of our Lord’s family—Mary, Joseph, St. Ann—surround images of Himself at important moments throughout His life (birth, Crucifixion, Ascension), just like the family portraits in the hall. Pictures of His close friends, the saints, line the walls in the form of stained glass or other art. In order to show others who may enter the church that this is the court of a heavenly King, there should be a certain splendor and beauty about everything. Nothing is too good for our Savior.
“But when Jesus came to earth, He was poor,” you might object. “He was born in a stable and lived in a humble home in Nazareth. Maybe in the Old Testament, God demanded gold and acacia along with animal sacrifices, but now that Jesus has come, we don’t need any of that.”
True, we do not need fancy churches full of art any more than we need framed photos of our loved ones. But our ancestors from the time of Christ until just a few decades ago still thought it was right to give their best workmanship to the Lord, just as the three Magi brought their finest to the little Lord in Bethlehem. Someone has always objected that all the costly art in the churches should be sold and the money used to feed the poor; Judas Iscariot was the first to make that argument, when a woman broke an alabaster jar of ointment for Jesus’s feet. Jesus praised her and rebuked Judas: “She has done a beautiful thing to me” (Mark 14:6).
So, it is unfitting that the dwelling place of God be ugly or too bare. It is fitting, according to Jesus Himself, to expend our best skill and costliest materials on Him. And the poor? “The poor you will always have with you,” Jesus said on the same occasion, and this brings me to another point: who benefits from the beautiful home of God? Not God, really, for He is self-sufficient and cares nothing for our trifles for their own sake. We—the poor included—benefit from having a beautiful place in which to visit Our Lord. The church should inspire the yearning and pining that the Psalmist expresses so that we all long to go and worship as often as possible.
With all this in mind, I feel distressed when I walk into a bland church with drop ceilings and, too often, an ambiguous sanctuary lamp. “Who lives here?” I want to ask. “Where is my Host, that I may greet Him?” The Lord of Hosts wants us to visit Him at home and to offer us a beloved place in which to dwell with Him. Let us not hinder the hospitality of our God, but rather do a beautiful thing for Him—and for ourselves.
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