When you are in Rome do as the Romans do! A Malayalam version of it is: In the land of snake-eaters eat its central piece. The thrust of the exhortation is to be circumspect, move with time and place – be it in the style of the dress you wear, the food you eat, the vehicle you drive, the house you live in and the temple you go to worship.
The topic under discussion is the disturbing competition so visible all around in erecting churches, mosques and temples of worship in various religions and between religions. Think of the monumental temple planned to be built in the place of demolished Babri Masjid. For Christians, what bothers some is that their parish church doesn’t grow in length and width and size as their parish community grows in numbers and so how to solve it with minimum modification and least cost. For others it is a God-sent excuse to go in for a new fashionable Church of their dreams in style and size and architectural extravaganza to put their imagined zeal for the house of God to work to achieve - Nirvana -mental and spiritual fulfillment and also to exhibit the faith they believe in, through visible concrete wonders in size and shape.
No one can question man’s innate need to assemble together to express their brotherhood and to worship together to acknowledge their total dependence on God almighty. Besides when narrow lanes are replaced with highways and old buildings by sky-high shopping complexes, glittering mansions or multifaceted apartments, shouldn’t old fashioned churches and temples of bygone times be replaced with modern ones? Thus goes the argument and not without some justification.
For Carpenter of Nazareth?
But for whose sake are these churches built? They are made in the name and for the sake of Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth, who said: “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head.”(Mt.8.20) Listen also to the words of Isaiah on the subject: “Thus says Yahweh: With heaven my throne, and earth my footstool, what house could you build me, what place could you make for my rest? All this was made by my hand and all of this is mine.” Is.66.1.
In any case Jesus didn’t have or want any house of his own from his birth in a stable to his death on Calvary. Nor did he entrust any one to build one. Nay to those who wanted to follow him didn’t he say: “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every day and follow me,” Lk.9.23, leaving behind father, mother, brothers, wife, children and the whole household, in fact after selling everything and distributing to the poor?Lk.18.22 “Every one who has left houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children or land for the sake of my name will be repaid a hundred times over.”Mt.19.29 And a married Peter’s reply was: ”We have left everything and followed you.”Mt.19.27. Peter himself built no churches, though his name is immortalized by St.Peter’s Basilica in Rome, fortunately not the name of his master. Caught in the mental conflict to imitate his master to the last and the realization of his unworthiness to do so, it is said Peter got himself crucified upside down. That was the extent to which he went to imitate Jesus.
Where then is the biblical basis for churches and shrines to imprison Jesus or God almighty? Jesus did not come to establish a new religion or build temples of worship. He did not ask his followers to worship him but to imitate him. Worshiping him is easy, not imitating! As for worshiping God he asked them to do it neither in that temple or this temple, but in spirit and in truth in one’s own heart. When he prayed, it is said that he often did it in solitude and on mountain tops. One of the few times he is reported to have wept, it was over Jerusalem and its glorious temple which he prophesized would be razed to the ground not leaving a stone upon a stone. After that he is reported to have gone into that temple to chase out the buyers and sellers inside. So what is the lesson for those who are busy like bees in cities and country side putting up monumental mansions of artistic beauty called churches, shrines or Cathedrals and filling wayside corners with eye-catching chapels? Can their fate be anything other than that of the tower of Babel ventured upon by the builders to make a name for themselves and reach up to the heavens through lifeless structure of brick and mortar?
Dust of the Empire
The followers of the carpenter of Nazareth began to be called Christians in Antioch, Acts 11.26. They came out of the catacombs and began to live in Royal style with thrones and dominations wielding spiritual and temporal power only with the blessing and support of Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. To sweep clean that dust of the empire accumulated through centuries on the Church starting from the throne of Peter downwards, Pope John the XXIII called the Vatican Council. That process is still going on with fits and fumes, with pulls and counter pulls. Part of it is the Churchmen’s struggle to combine the incompatibles – to run with the rabbits and to hunt with the hounds, to befriend the powers that be of this world with possession and position and at the same time to bear witness to the Jesus of Nazareth who gave up everything to identify himself with the poor, oppressed, exploited, sick and marginalized in order to establish the Fatherhood of God and brotherhood of all humans based on love, truth, justice, mercy, compassion and selfless service.
But didn’t Jesus also say to Peter: “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church. And the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it.”Mt.16.18. Yes he did and wanted to build his quahat in Hebrew or Ekklesia in Greek, meaning an assembly or community, faithful to his teachings and not a lifeless structure of brick and mortar, which the word “Church” has come to mean. In this first sense there is an urgent need to build up new living churches (communities) within the confines of every existing parish in every diocese. This living church is what St.Paul speaks of: Don’t you know that your body is the temple of God and the spirit of God dwells in you.(1Cor.6.19) and again: ”God…does not make his home in shrines made by human hands.” Ac 17.24.
It is here that we should return to our roots of the concept of Ekklesia or the prototype of the first Christian community. There the gathering for the breaking of bread took place in Christian homes, that is, in domestic churches. That did away with need of building up separate edifices where no one lives or assembles except once a week. There was also a clear demarcation of spiritual and temporal duties. The apostles handed over all administrative and money matters like serving the tables to “seven men of good reputation, filled with the Spirit and with wisdom” Acts 6.3 and they confined themselves to “prayer and to the service of the word” or preaching.
The principle was that the spiritual leadership or the priestly class in the Christian community should never handle money to get tainted or immerse themselves in administrative matters. These are to be left to honest, service minded experts in various fields in the community. The spiritual leadership is to excel themselves in two things only: prayer and preaching of the word, to speak out without fear or favour what they have prayed over(contemplata tradere) like Jesus and to lead the community like its good shepherd In modern parlance, the laity should take over all administrative matters in the Church and priests should have nothing to do with it. The great dilemma is, what to do with the magnificent pyramidal hierarchical structure of Judaism which Jesus buried with the washing of the feet and which got resurrected in the church with Constantine! If the present pyramidal structure is to be maintained for the sake of organization and efficiency, how to divest the spiritual leaders from their material and profane worldly duties, possessions and positions?
Living Temples of God
Building up such living temples or communities should mean going in search of every home irrespective of class, caste or creed in the parish confines to find out the hungry to make sure that no home in the locality goes to bed hungry, no one in any home is left to die for lack of means for urgent medical care, no one is denied decent clothing due to lack of money, no one is denied the basic amenities of a rain-proof house, no one is denied basic education due to his inability to pay capitation fees, no grown up girls are denied marriage due to lack of minimum means needed to get engagements clinched etc. This is the way to build up living temples(Churches) of God. The early Christian community did just that, not build churches. There was no one in need among them because they loved each other not in words but in deed, sharing one another’s needs and burdens. That was responsible for attracting many into their fold.
Today the same carpenter of Nazareth would really want to rebuild his church, not according to the plans of the post-Constantine architects who specialize in lifeless brick work but according to the planners of the church of the catacombs. We have any number of churches and Cathedrals of the first type in Europe which have become museum pieces today and are deserted as centres of prayer. The same fate alone can befall the expensive concrete churches we now build in India.
However it should be noted that deserted churches in the West need not necessarily mean the death of true Christian spirit there. In fact aren’t they far ahead of us in helping with men and material victims of natural calamities to promote humanitarian and developmental works across the globe especially in poor and developing countries? Is not that what the spirit of Jesus is all about, helping the needy? Instead how can going through the motions of lip-service, body movements such as kneeling, bowing, singing and exhibiting various devotional poses called liturgical service at various fixed hours of the day or week be an imitation of Jesus? Where do the much publicized charismatic prayer centers stand in this context?
During the Second World War a lot of homes and churches were razed to the ground. So after the war there was a hue and cry in Germany from the Christian community to rebuild the destroyed Churches first, to help the faithful to come together to pray and thank God for the spared lives and property. But the bishops insisted:: Let us first rebuild the destroyed homes which are the living temples of God. The destroyed churches and Cathedrals can wait. That was a perfect example of building up living churches.
But what about the dearth of space in many of the existing churches and man’s pressing need to pray together? Here a whole lot of existing traditional devotional or spiritual practices should be subjected to a radical rethinking. Sabbath is for man, not man for Sabbath. First is the obligatory Sunday worship. For the human soul prayer is like breath for the body. It is not something needed just for few hours on Sundays only but for all weak days. So what is the logic of making it obligatory only on Sundays?
Assembling for community prayer can’t be an everyday affair either. Today the concrete buildings called churches function fully only on Sundays. They are practically a dead investment for the rest of the weak. Therefore what may be done is to make the churches function fully everyday of the weak like Sundays and ask the believers to fulfill their need (or obligation) to pray together any day of the weak to avoid overcrowding on Sundays or even to assign each day of the weak mainly for the benefit of one-seventh of the parishioners (or parish units) in a rotating manner. It would make the Parish priest fully busy with the pastoral work of his flock every day of the week and provide the parishioners a more relaxed and easy access to their Parish priest.
One should also take cue from Europe where the same Church building is used by different denominations at mutually arranged convenient times, instead of multiplying churches for any and every new brand of Churchianitiy popping up. Actually Christians who are unable to call upon God as Father together can’t claim themselves to be Christians, that is, followers of the Jesus of Nazareth. He or the God he revealed can’t be in any of the Churches that can’t pray together with the rest of humanity and least of all with the rest of those who call themselves Christians but are not able to come together to call God: Our Father and Jesus Our Brother. What true followers of Jesus should strive is to go much further to develop universal prayer-centers where followers of all existing religions could come together and pray together. That is the kind of unity and human brotherhood Jesus lived and died for. Humanity cannot and should not stop striving until that goal is reached!
Dr. James Kottoor