In this week’s installment, dear reader, I would like to let you know that you are wasting your time with this harangue. There is a wonderful app “The Mass Explained” by a fellow named Dan Gonzalez. It looks pretty good and Mike Aquilina is involved in it so it must be good, but it’s a bit pricey and, well this is free, so I guess you might as well keep reading. Still, if you really want to know about the Mass in depth, check out the “Mass Explained” app. (Aren’t you impressed that I can use trendy terms like “app”? Until just a few years ago I was still working with goose quill pens and carrier pigeons.)
I have already explained that the smells, bells, and strange clothing are borrowed from the temple and are a kind of souvenir of our entire history: Israelite, Greek, Roman, the whole schmeer. Much of our liturgical (fancy Greek word meaning “church service”) paraphernalia (fancy Greek word meaning “stuff”) is modeled on the temple in Jerusalem. “Why?” you ask. First, it’s in the Bible. And second, we claim to be legitimate, albeit adopted, children of Israel. Our Jewish friends have given up the temple liturgy since the destruction of the temple in 70 AD and the subsequent banishment of Israel from Jerusalem in 132 AD. The first Christians claimed that Jesus had established a new temple, one not made with stone, and that temple is us, the church! So it’s only natural that we have candles and incense and holy water and bread and wine and vestments and sacrifice and oil and chanting and psalms and altars. We are the temple, and in this temple the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world is eternally sacrificed once and for all. My friend Rabbi Yehudah ben Yiddishkeit once told me, “You Catholics! You’re more Jewish than we are! You have altars and sacrifices and temples! We don’t do that anymore!”
I would agree with the Rabbi, save for one point. We are not more Jewish. We are more Israelite. Judaism is Israel without the temple. We claim to still have the temple. In fact, we claim to be the temple.
On Mount Sinai, Moses was commanded to build a portable dwelling for the Lord. The Hebrew word for dwelling is “Mishkan” and it is usually translated by the Latin word “Tabernacle”, which in Latin literally means little hut or tent. Though there is dispute about this, it seems that the structure was also called the Tent of Meeting, the place where God would meet His people. It consisted of a large roofless enclosing which had an altar and behind this altar was a smaller roofed tent in which was kept the Ark of the Covenant.
When King David conquered Jerusalem and made it his capital, he moved the Ark of theCovenant to Jerusalem. His son Solomon built the temple which was really the Tabernacle/Tent of Meeting turned into a permanent stone structure. It was a set of courts each one smaller than the other. The largest court was open to all the Israelites, the next court to Israelite men, the next court, open only to priests and Levites, held the altar of sacrifice, and the innermost court, which held the Ark of the Covenant, was open only to the high priest, and then only once a year. It was there that God dwelt on the wings of the cherubs over the Ark of the Covenant, called the Aron in Hebrew.
Synagogues and traditional Catholic churches imitate this structure. The center piece of the synagogue is the Aron which holds the scrolls of the law. There is no altar, because in Judaism there can be no sacrifice since the destruction of the temple. The traditional Catholic church imitates the temple even more closely than does the synagogue. In a Catholic church, there is the nave or body of the church in which the congregation gathers, which is separated from the sanctuary by a communion rail just as the court of the priests was separated from the court of Israel. The Israelites would come to the edge of the court of priests carrying their offerings. In a Catholic church, the communion rail is the place where the faithful bring themselves, their offering, to the Lord and experience communion with the Lord. Beyond this place of encounter is the altar of sacrifice, and a small box, usually made of metal in which the consecrated communion wafers are kept. This box, or tabernacle, the same word that described the tent in the desert, is a focus for prayer; the sign of Christ’s abiding presence with His people.
So, in the traditional Catholic church you have hints of the structure of the temple in Jerusalem and the Tent of meeting in the desert, you have an outer court, a court for sacrifice and a small structure, and a tabernacle that serves as the dwelling place of God. This is the tradition. There was an aberrant period in the 20th century in which liturgists and architects decided that art was to be judged by its ability to shock and offend. Churches were built to look like spaceships from Planet Ugly. We are slowly recovering from that era and returning to the idea that symmetry is beautiful. In churches built in the era of ugly, you won’t find these elements that tie us to three thousand five hundred years of the Judeo-Christian heritage, but it is still there in a lot of older churches and even in some newer churches.
Next week: Finally, the Mass