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Temple of the Holy Spirit

Which Temple?

One question I like to as ask in class is actually one I stole from a favorite professor a long time ago: when the Church was first allowed to hold property publically and construct buildings for worship, why did we use the Basilica structure?

One might think that as an up and coming religion, we would have taken over other religious buildings. One expects the new religion to topple the temples of the old religions, break their idols, and replace them with the temple of the new religion. On the whole, this is not what ancient Christians did. There are, to be sure, many temples which ancient Christians destroyed, and there are some which we re-purposed, but this is not the overwhelming pattern.

Instead of replacing the old gods with new ones in the same temple, we built new buildings in the pattern of the Roman Basilica. Why?

An ancient temple typically displayed the highest architectural style of the time in its foundation, columns, and roof style. It would be adorned with artwork typically aimed at the statue of the divinity kept inside or the altar for sacrifice, and typically had a place reserved for the priest or priestess of the temple. The Roman Basilica is that structure which resembles a long hallway, or perhaps three long hallways smashed together side-by-side. At one end there are the entry doors. At the other, there is usually some kind of curved wall with some chairs and a place for speaking. The building was designed for legal proceedings like court cases or town hall type meetings. Why use a building designed for legal proceedings instead of one designed for sacrifice or viewing the statue of the divinity, like a temple?

Two things “allowed” us to adopt the most convenient structure.

First, Catholics are the Temple of the Holy Spirit. The Church of Christ against which the gates of Hell shall not prevail is not some castle fortified with stones on a hill, but the Body of Christ that is one bread gathered from the scattered grain of humans across space and time. We don’t need a building to serve as our Temple for the “gods” to dwell.

Second, our purpose in gathering at Church is to offer true worship to the true God. This definitely asks us to have a tabernacle and an altar, and these are fixed architectural features that have parallels in the temples of other religions, but the sacrifice of the Mass also includes proclamation of the Scriptures, preaching of the Gospel, and gathering of the People of God together with sacrifice at the altar.

The Basilica structure is simply more suited to our kind of worship than were the ancient temple structures.

Meditation on our favorite Churches must be meditation not only on the place with its art and architecture, but also on every gift the members of the Body of Christ has given at the altar in that place. This means our favorite places should coincide with our favorite people, and our favorite people should coincide with our favorite temples of the Holy Spirit.

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Tommy Humphries

Tommy is a proud father and husband for the Humphries’ outpost in Florida. A native of Arkansas, he grew up in Little Rock. He is paid to teach philosophy, theology, and religion as university professor (CV on, and volunteers his time as a District Chief with the county Fire Rescue Department.

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