Opening the Word: The living temple

The rites for the dedication of a church building reveal something odd about the Catholic imagination.

There is no ribbon cutting ceremony whereby the space is declared ready for divine worship.

The walls are blessed with water, a sign of baptism. The altar is anointed with oil, a fragrant offering to the Lord. The space is consecrated to the living God, treated as if it were the living and breathing body of the Lord.

To dedicate a church building is to celebrate the very existence of the Church in the world, the body of believers that will draw all creation toward redemption in Christ.

1 Peter reminds us of the Church’s identity as the living Temple of God in the world. At the center of the Church is not a series of abstract ideas, a political program, but the rejected cornerstone prophesized in Psalm 118: “Come to him, a living stone, rejected by human beings, but chosen and precious in the sight of God” (1 Pt 2:4-5).

The word “living” is an important one. It could mean bubbling up, alive, refreshing and exerting power upon the soul. The “living” cornerstone means that Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, is the very source of life for the body of believers.

Through this transformation made possible because of the Resurrection of the Lord, the human body can now share in the salutary gift of redemption. Through membership in the Church, we become “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you might announce the praises of him who called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Pt 2:9).

Note what it means to belong to the Church. Our identity as the priesthood of God is not intended to build up our own sense of importance. Rather, we have become the living Temple of God so that we might announce, make clear and manifest in the world the God who conquers the darkness of death through the light of love.

We must let ourselves be built by the Spirit into his living and breathing Temple. In the Gospel of John, our Lord gives us the blueprints for the construction project of our hearts, “‘Amen, amen I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father’” (Jn 14:12).

During the season of Easter, we are invited to believe in the Lord not as an abstract principle but as the resurrected God-man, who breathes the Holy Spirit into our lives.

We believe when we give ourselves over to the works of our risen Lord: to preach the Good News, to heal the sick, to clothe the naked, to care for the vulnerable, to love unto the end.

As we carry out these deeds of love, we share more fully in the love that bonds together the Father and the Son. We share in the life of the Spirit, breathing in us.

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The salvation we are promised by Christ is not merely some future event. It is unfolding right now as we learn to delight in God’s Word, as we savor his sacramental presence, as we care for the poor.

In each case, it is not we alone who work, we alone who commit ourselves to practicing love.

Rather, we are the living Temple of God already manifesting to the world what life can become in Christ.

Everything can become worship.

Try looking at your church building in the same way again.

Timothy P. O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.