Parts of a Church


Temple of the Old Law

Jewish laity could gather in the temple porch, but only priests had access to the holy place. In the holy of holies, God manifested his presence in a supernatural cloud accessible only to the high priest once a year (Lev. 16:2).


Temple of the New Law

The traditional layout of the Christian place of worship, while not specified by divine revelation, is fittingly based on the Jewish Temple. Obvious similarities are found between the two, chiefly in the divisions into (1) the place where God dwells, (2) the place where priests may enter, and (3) the place where the faithful may enter.*

Visually a church's sanctuary corresponds to the holy of holies, and the nave to the holy place; however, there is more correspondence theologically between the Christian tabernacle and the Jewish holy of holies, between the sanctuary and the holy place, and between the nave and the porch.

Under the New Law, Christ Himself is the primary temple (Jn. 2:19), and secondarily the members of his mystical body (1 Cor. 6:19); but even architecturally there is a parallel to the holy of holies. In temples of the New Law, that is, in Catholic churches, God manifests his presence in a more excellent way than a cloud: Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, is really and substantially present in the Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist, under the appearances of bread. For this reason it is customary to cover the Christian tabernacle with a veil or curtain, signifying the sanctity of the Lord's presence. Traditionally, the veil has a separation in the middle, calling to mind the temple veil having been torn in two at the moment of Christ's death (Mt. 27:51).

* In modern parliance the term "sanctuary" is sometimes applied to a church interior generally. In traditional Christian architecture, however, the sanctuary is the altar area, the domain of priests and ministers, as distinct from the nave (where the congregation sits) and from other parts of the building.

Does God Dwell in Buildings?

St. Luke the evangelist, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, tells us that the Patriarch Joshua

found grace before God, and desired to find a tabernacle for the God of Jacob. But Solomon built him a house. Yet the most High dwelleth not in houses made by hands, as the prophet saith: "Heaven is my throne, and the earth my footstool. What house will you build me?" saith the Lord; or "what is the place of my resting? Hath not my hand made all these things?" (Acts 7:46-50)

In the book of the Exodus we find, however, that God himself ordered the building of the temple, even specifying its details; and after it was built, he manifested his presence there (Ex. 25:8 ff). Centuries later the Son of God came to dwell among us; and he took bread and changed it into his body, giving his Apostles power to do the same (Mt. 26:26 ff). These special manifestations of God do not confine or limit him to physical locations anymore than he is confined by his holy indwelling in the Christian's soul.

What, then, can St. Luke mean when he says that God "dwelleth not in houses made by hands"? What does God himself mean when he says as much in Isaiah 66? Bishop Richard Challoner explains:

Dwelleth not in houses: That is, so as to stand in need of earthly dwellings, or to be contained, or circumscribed by them. Though, otherwise by his immense divinity, he is in our houses; and every where else; and Christ in his humanity dwelt in houses; and is now on our altars.

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Todd Aylard