Word Magazine March 1959 Page 10-11
THE PARISH CHURCH
YOUR GATEWAY TO GRACE
By Eli A. Haddad
Mankind writes its history clearly in the buildings it rears, the laws it makes, the books it writes and the monuments it erects. We can easily read the life story of a race and aspirations of a people as we stand before the homes, the public buildings — and the churches.
The tent of the nomadic Arab, transient, is a clear indication of the restless people the fortress-like homes of medieval Europe, indicated the feuds of the day carried to the very doors of a man’s home.
But in his churches — all that is finest in a man and his race finds concrete expression. For a church has always been man’s gift to God … or his gods. For it is his method of aspiring to and reaching the world beyond earth.
Is it any wonder then that we find throughout history churches that are beautiful — and some that are incredibly ugly. Some temples aspire to the very heavens … some are content to squat in smug complacency. Some temples are dark and ugly as the religion they contain … and there are temples filled with light and beauty and express the reaching of the soul for God. If the religion was limited and debased, earthbound as the religion of ancient Greece with its earthy gods and goddesses, the temples could not rise above the rites it sheltered.
Though the Hebrews knew that their Yahweh could not be contained in any temple built by hands, the mere fact that His presence would rest upon their holy of holies forced Solomon to build as no man before had built.
Christianity came and men knew that religion was a thing of joy and beauty because there was a Father in Heaven who loved all humanity, and a Son of God who would deign to dwell forever with the children of men.
With the liberation of Christendom, Constantine turned over to the faithful the law courts of the empire. Nothing else could have been more significant. Where once an earthly judge had sat, Christ, the judge of the living and the dead took His place on the altar. In the nave, where the law clients had formerly gathered to plead their cases, the faithful assembled, pleading hopefully with the judge whose decisions were guided by love . . . and whose sentence was mercy and peace. No longer was stern judgment rendered in these transformed law courts: instead, the words of merciful forgiveness over the heads of repentant sinners.
Today the Church, vowed by its purpose to keep the symbol of man’s salvation always before him, holds aloft the sign of the Cross. Even in our modern cities the Cross on the church stands outlined more clearly than in the historical past when Constantine saw it in the clouds and took it for the battle standards of his victorious armies.
The parish church contains within it the peace, brightness and happiness of faith. The music and chimes ringing out call the faithful to prayer, announce the joy of the young married couple, tell of the sad departure of the dead, and sound the glory of Easter. The parish church is a holy land sacred by the re-enacted drama of the birthlife and death of Jesus. And it is holy too, because each parish church summarizes all that the great Holy Orthodox, Apostolic and Catholic church teaches and believes.
But the parish church is also a little garrison of priest and people fighting for the things that make life worth living — faith in God, hope of eternity, respect for the sacred institution of home and family, the right of little children to be born and receive from infancy, a knowledge of God, reverence for law and government, obedience to the Commandments.
The parish churches are for the man and woman at the dear familiar intimate moments of their spiritual life. They are God’s ordinary and regular channel of grace to their souls. The parish churches are the beautiful shrines of the homely happy days of life; the days remembered for peace and happiness and sacraments conferred — for the little ones, for the bride and groom, for the souls gone before their maker.
The parish church, as is a man s home and a man’s business is a part of that ordinary, regular life by which a man mounts from earth to heaven.
THE ALTAR – GATEWAY TO HEAVEN
Always — the heart and center of every Orthodox Church is the altar.
Protestantism, the one religion in all time without a sacrifice, has built a church without the altar. Empty, unintelligible churches, they would puzzle the great architects who traditionally designed all churches to center and focus on the altar. Strange misfits, every line in them cries aloud for the banished altar.
That altar in the parish church is the gateway to Heaven. Through it God comes to man. Through it, God comes to man. Through it, man returns to God. Upon it is re-enacted the last Supper and Calvary. Because of the altar, the parish church is not a mere house, still less a mere meeting place or auditorium. It is full of the realization of the Holy of Holies. For here, not a shadow of God has rested, as it rested upon the Temple of Solomon. Here God takes up permanent abode among us.
Because of this fact, the Orthodox churches have a significance and importance unique among the buildings of the World.
The smallest and least beautiful is still God’s home upon earth. It is a Jacob’s ladder down which come, not the angels of God, but the Son of Man, Himself. No wonder men have thrown into the making of these Churches all that is beautiful, artistic and beloved.
But man, though he is a member of the human race, is always an intense individualist. His parish church must tell the story of his personal faith — and the parish church is the story of man’s spiritual life from the cradle to the grave.
As a little child, he is carried to the baptismal immersion and the words commanded by Christ are spoken. He begins to live a new life of grace as God’s adopted child.
The growing boy and girl, with the hot attack of temptation trying their young hearts return to kneel for confession and quietly and secretly fill their souls with a renewed consecration.
For the young bride and groom the doors of the sanctuary rails open in welcome, and Christ, whose first miracle was performed at the wedding feast of Cana, is both the host and most important guest of their marriage.
The intimate sorrows of life come too with swift feet to the altar. There, sinners secretly pour out their shame. The young woman who has seen for the first time the ugly look of passion in terrifying eyes brings her fears and doubts to the altar. Failure crushing him, the man of business bows to ask strength of the Christ who never in all His life tasted the joy of success.
From the altar to the bedside, of the dying, the priest carries the Bread and Wine with rapid yet reverent step — and with His coming, comes courage to face the blackness hand in hand with the Master of life and death.
Truly, the parish church is mere meeting place. It is the center of man’s spiritual life, toward which flows inevitably the new life just born, the old life facing the grave, the human sorrows and pains, joys and happiness, sins repented and good deeds done.
YOUR HOLY LAND
The parish church is in a very true sense our Holy Land.
History is singularly unappreciative and singularly lacking in an understanding of the splendid deeds and high purposes that motivated men and women of other generations. It has failed to grasp the beautiful, simple emotion that inspired crusaders to die for the love of the Holy Land. A great emotion drove them forward. They could not bear to think that the Holy Land and its holy places were held by men who were anti-Christ. In their hearts was that simple beautiful, fundamental love of the human heart — the love of sacred holy places — and each parish church is in the truest senses our Holy Land. There, day after day, year in and year out, are repeated the tremendous things that made ancient Palestine dear to the heart of the early Christians. In the Parish Church, Christ mystically offers life and death for sinners. There, the historic events that He enacted under the sun of Galilee and Judea are re-enacted close to our homes and hearts —and your parish church is Bethlehem.
The priest leans above the white altar, and to the lineal descendants of the adoring shepherds, Christ comes once more to earth. As truly as Nazareth held the Holy House, each parish church is a Holy House and each parish another Nazareth.
The altar becomes the hill of Calvary from which the precious blood of the Divine victim flows in reparation and sacrificial praise. This is a Holy Land, this parish church, sacred by the re-enacted birth and life and death of the Eucharistic Savior. And it is holy, too, because each parish church summarizes all that our Orthodox Church teaches and believes. The parish altar is the symbol of the abiding love and watchful providence. The parish churches are established watchtowers where the providential vigil guards the parish people.
The parish altar is the symbol of the Orthodox belief in the sacredness of human life and divine institution. While the rest of the world makes mock of marriage, our church crowns and blesses the young married couple close to the altar of God. While much of the world sees in death a hopeless snuffing out of life, in the parish church the brought to the altar for blessing in expectation of the resurrection which is as sure and certain as the resurrection of the buried Christ.
While pagan unbelief sees nothing above but the blank wall of clouds, the priest before the altar lifts his hands in an assurance that God waits expectantly for prayer and sacrifice and in answer to the commanding words of consecration, leaves His throne to take his place in the midst of His people.
Each parish church is a magnificent tribute to the priest and people. Each parish church is a splendid and heroic unit — the united world of people and priest. No royal endowments make possible the local parish church. No government support, no state taxes or grants helped in their erection. Parish churches have been built with the generous dreaming and labor and magnificent sacrifice and unselfishness of the people.