(Click here to read the lecture on a single webpage.)
As I approached step by step ordination to the priesthood, I received what were called the “minor orders” one of which was doorman. The liturgical rite in being instituted as a doorman was in the handing over of the keys of the church. I was under no illusions that that meant I could bind and loose! – only that I could act as a sort of janitor and perhaps by acting well in that role be promoted eventually to sharing something of what the keys meant in spiritual terms.
In classical times, of course, the words “temple” and “synagogue” denoted where sacred rites were conducted or where people gathered for instruction and prayer. The early Christians gathered in the homes of believers, though from the Acts of the Apostles it is clear that worshippers gathered also in open places as by a river, or spoke of religious matters in the squares or market places as did St Paul in the Areopagus in Athens. Of course as their numbers increased, they needed more spacious and better defined spaces. The Roman Basilica became the model of our earliest churches.
This is not a lecture on the development of church architecture by way of an introduction to the history of two church buildings which at different times have served the same ecclesial community.
However it is of interest in passing to note how aptly the Basilican form served the early Christian community. A temple housed a statue or, as in the temple of Jerusalem, the accoutrements of the deity, the inner cell of which – the Holy of Holies – was not a place occupied by the followers of the divine cult but rather reserved for the exclusive use of the ministering priests.
The people were outside in an open space or colonnaded court where sacrifices were offered facing the deity or what represented the divine. The loaves placed within the temple were for the deity, not for the people of God.
In the Christian dispensation, however, the loaves were for the faithful, consecrated by priests for their spiritual nourishment; the consecrated chalice of wine replacing the blood of the sacrifice. At the last supper, Jesus said clearly to his apostles in handing them the bread which he had blessed: “This is my body given for you” and with reference to the chalice: “This is the chalice of my blood poured out for you. Do this in memory of me.”
When the faithful assembled they surrounded the altar as a table from which the sacramental gifts were dispensed, which they had themselves placed there as offerings for consecration. The consecrating priest stood at this altar, either facing the Lord to whom the gifts were offered, or the people to whom they were dispensed. Facing the Lord was symbolically expressed by facing Jerusalem where the Lord was crucified and rose again, or the east, where as the sun of justice he rose to shed his light upon a world darkened by sin.
The Roman Basilica met their liturgical needs. It was spacious, having the colonnades which supported its roof within its peripheral walls, and not outside them supporting the overhanging roofs as in temples. Its apse provided the natural place for the presiding priest as it had previously accommodated the Roman magistrate.