The Sacramental Space of the Celebration

by Jean Corbon, appearing in Volume 7

Christ is our new time, and it is this that we celebrate in the night of faith until everything is brought to its completion in the light of the day of his coming. He is also our living space, our “new universe” (see Rev. 21:5), and it is in him that we celebrate the mysteries of faith until everything has become “a new heaven and a new earth,” the place where “God lives among human beings” (Rev 21:lff). Even now he is the mysterious place, “hidden in the Father,” in which we sacramentally celebrate the eternal liturgy. But in what sense is this place truly sacramental? How can the space of our world contain the new universe?

“Rabbi, where do you live?” (Jn 1:38)

The economy of salvation that is revealed to us in the Bible and brought to fulfillment in our celebrations is marked from one end to the other by the search for a dwelling place. The first creation already exists under this sign. The earth was inhabitable because God prepared it as a dwelling place for the human beings whom he loves, but it became hostile as soon as fear took hold of the human heart. It is there that God seeks out human beings: “Where are you?” (Gen 3:9). The first sign of the unreliability of this dwelling place is that human beings turn it into a hiding place for their self-centered-ness instead of throwing it open for encounter and welcome. Henceforth inhospitable to human beings in flight from their God, it becomes captive to a tragic ambiguity: fruitfulness and death, garden and wilderness, home and exile. In light of this ambiguity the promise that springs from the Father’s heart becomes intelligible: it will be a world that is a dwelling place for children who believe in his love. The ambiguity will be removed, for human beings will be able to dwell in the land of their God only if their hearts become trusting once again.

Go to “a country which I shall show you,” but on one condition: “Leave your country. . . and your father’s house” (Gen 12:1). When, after centuries of wandering, exoduses, and exiles, the Son himself became a human being, he fulfilled both the promise and the condition: he left his Father and entered this world, but did so in order to lead us and bring us into his Father’s house (Jn 13:1ff; 14:1). The first two disciples had an inkling of this when in response to Jesus’ question, which was a veiled call pregnant with hope: “What do you want?” they asked: “Rabbi, where do you live?” (Jn 1:38). Once the Word became flesh, “he lived among us” (Jn 1:14); once the heart of his mother had become wholly a dwelling place of faith, the faithful Son dwelt in our land. Then everything began to come back to life. The earth on which human beings hide themselves out of fear, and with death as the result, was to become the space in which they would exist in trust and with life as its fruit.

From his conception to his ascension Jesus brought to fulfillment this mystery of the dwelling place. He who contains the universe in his all-powerful word is himself contained as a child in his mother’s womb. He who fashioned Adam from the soil is fashioned from the virginal soil of Mary. “The Word who creates the world comes looking for shelter in a cave.” The cave, prototypical human dwelling place, was regarded at a very early date as the symbol of the birth-place of Jesus. But in this place in which human beings had once sheltered from death, they now encounter the author of their life. That is precisely what the myrrh-bearing women would discover when Jesus had been laid in the final human cave: the tomb. “Why look among the dead for someone who is alive?” (Lk 24:5). At this point, every-thing is changed. Space, like time, explodes: it is no longer closed in upon itself but is delivered from death and filled with him who contains all things in his very body. From the empty tomb to the closed doors of the upper room, the same mystery of the new universe begins to manifest itself: the “non-place” of the risen Christ becomes, through his victory over death, the new space of our universe. Hence-forth his ascension keeps expanding the space of his in-corruptible body until it is all in all and the new creation has been brought to completion. “Look, I am with you always; yes, to the end of time” (Mt 28:20).

The Church, House of God

The church of stone or wood that we enter in order to share in the eternal liturgy is indeed a space within our world; it is set apart, however, because it is a space which the resurrection has burst open. It is not a space that platonically symbolizes an abstract universe, but a space in which a world delivered from death really dwells. It is there that we celebrate the liturgy by bringing to fulfillment the mystery of the body of Christ. This place of celebration is the place where the promise of a dwelling is also fulfilled. The very locale, in its sensible materiality, is the place where Christ brings to fulfillment his promise and the expectation of human beings, for in this sacramental space the Father’s house (Jn 14:2) is thrown open to us. Speaking of the icon of Christ, the Second Council of Nicaea tells us: “In Christ himself we contemplate both the inexpressible and that which is represented.”2 But what is a church, as a sacramental space, if not an icon of the body of Christ, of the “whole” Christ?3

We had a glimpse of this earlier when we reflected on the ascension of the Lord4 as a celebration of the eternal liturgy, for all the actors in the mystery are here present, surrounding the assembly that is here and now celebrating. The space of the church is transfigured; its surfaces with their lively icons open beyond themselves into the space of the coming kingdom; its stones on which the wonders of the mystery of Christ are proclaimed become the living stones of the new Jerusalem. It is because this space is sacramental that the church manifests the Church.

It is clear, however, that we must see this sacramental space through the eyes of faith or we will sink into a subjective symbolism. But the vision of faith is a focused vision; it has a center, and that center is not only the risen Christ under the sign of the Pantocrator or the life-giving cross, but also that which is the sign of his being a “non-place” for death: I mean his tomb. The altar is in effect the point of convergence for all the lines in the space that is the church. It is because of the altar that the space of the church is sacramental. The altar tells us that the body of Christ is no longer here or there in a mortal place, but is risen and fills everything with its presence. This “non-place” for death becomes the place where the paschal sacrifice is offered. That is why a church is not a “sacred” place in the same sense as the houses of worship built by religions that are searching for the godhead. The space of our churches with their icons is a space that is open to the Lord who is coming, a space that is both expectant and filled, a space that supports the world and is drawn to the kingdom; it is the place where the epiclesis of the Spirit occurs and where every offering is transformed into the body of Christ.

The Space of the Body of Christ

All human beings carry within them the dream of a home. For our God it is no longer a dream but a promise, and in Jesus the promise is fulfilled. When we build a church, we carry within us the desire of providing a house, a home, for him and for us. But are we sufficiently mindful that when we build a church the prophecy of Nathan to David is being fulfilled for us: “It is the Lord who will build a house for you” (see 2 Sam 7)? Jesus said the same in his zeal for his Father’s house: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn 2:19). This gracious reversal, this passage to a dwelling in which everything is alive, is precisely the shattering of space that occurs in the resurrection of Jesus. In the resurrection the promise of a dwelling place is also fulfilled.

Human beings have always felt their houses, their homes, to be prolongations of their own bodies, a kind of second space (after their garments) for their persons. A house humanizes space, makes it habitable, makes it personal, so much so that the architecture of early houses was based on the architecture of the human body. In Christ the Father performs this marvelous adaptation in a way that is beyond all possible expectations: we become his dwelling place by taking on the form of his Son’s body. This configuration is given visible symbolization in cruciform churches: when the people of God assemble there, they take on the form of the crucified Christ who overcame death; when the river of life flows out into the new Jerusalem, it gives birth to trees of life. The space of a house awaits the presence of its in-habitants and is a sign of the quality of their presence. The sacramental space of a church embodies an entirely new expectation. It is open not only to the assembly that celebrates there but to all who are not yet in it and who are still unaware that their true dwelling place is the body of Christ. This space is a sign not only of the Father who waits and the Spirit who calls, but also of a presence that is unmerited gift, sharing, joy, and peace. Once again, the altar is at the center as place of the cup of salvation and thanksgiving, as table of the banquet of divine love. It is because of the altar that the sacramental space is not only focused and centered but is in movement, the movement being that of the Trinitarian communion wherein the body of Christ expands in self-giving and in praise of God’s glory. The search for a dwelling place that began in the first paradise is here completed at the heart of the Blessed Trinity: “Remain in me, as I in you ... Remain in my love ... just as ... I remain in his [the Father’s] love” (Jn 15:4, 9,10).

Like all the sacramental synergies, space of our celebrations is in an eschatological condition; that is, in it the kingdom is “already” coming, but the space is given to us precisely because the kingdom is “not yet” fully here. “There is no permanent city for us here; we are looking for the one which is yet to be” (Heb 13:14). The people of God who gather in a church are only pausing there on their exodus journey; the ground they occupy is that on which as pilgrims they set their feet, but as soon as they lift up their eyes, they contemplate their Lord who is coming, along with the holy Mother of God and the cloud of witnesses who are journeying with them. The two levels in the visions of the Apocalypse are reflected in the sacramental space of the liturgical celebration.

Finally, this space is sacramental because it acts as mediator. Not only is it the sign of the new universe that is coming to us and drawing us; it also expresses our response, our faith-inspired cooperation with the energy of the Holy Spirit. In a human house space mediates presence; in that space, all can be themselves, can listen and speak, can see their relatives and be acknowledged by them. In the house of God, this entirely new space enables us, in communion with one another, to be ourselves in the truth of the heart, to listen to the saving Word, to contemplate him and be accepted by him. The silence in which we are wrapped is part of the sacramental space of a church. As silence of the heart, it is our answer to the word that transforms us; as silence of the eyes, it is our self-offering to the light that transfigures us. Then, like the seer on Patmos, and in faith that is increasingly purified, we can “turn around to see who is speaking to us” (see Rev. 1:12). The risen Christ, the Word and Icon of the Father, will increasingly be-come our “new universe.” We will be able to depart from the church and the sacramental space without leaving the Lamb who is our temple in the Spirit. Abiding in him—and he in us—we will doubtless cease to celebrate his liturgy, but we will begin to live it.