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Since the official validation of Christianity in the fourth century, ecclesiastical leaders have built places of worship in central and highly visible locations. They were not motivated just by grandeur and power. In addition, they sensed that, to be authentic, Christian presence in the world must be public. For over 1,500 years, church buildings have been central and unifying elements in the configurations of cities, towns, and villages. Though in a world of skyscrapers and office towers churches are no longer so prominent, the public role of church buildings to sacramentalize the heavenly city and redeem the earthly one remains critically important and demands new and compelling expression. (What I say here about church buildings is true of the Church at all levels. Accordingly, in what follows the word “church” moves freely from reference to particular local institutions to ecclesiastical life generally.) 

The theme of the two cities has long been a favorite of Christian authors. Caesarius of Arles writes: “There are two cities, dearest brethren. The first is the city of this world, the second, the city of paradise. The good Christian is always journeying in the city of the world, but he is recognized as a citizen of the city of paradise.” 

The most marvelous image that Christians have of eternity is that of the redeemed city. In the Book of Revelation we read: “I . . . saw a new Jerusalem, the holy city, coming down out of Heaven from God, beautiful as a bride prepared to meet her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne cry out: ‘This is God’s dwelling among men. He shall dwell with them and they shall be His people and He shall be their God who is always with them. He shall wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, crying out or pain, for the former world has passed away’” (21:2–4). 

Into this heavenly city God will, at the end of time, gather humanity, creation, cosmos, and history. He will assume the human city into the heavenly city. Eternity will not be an eternity of disembodied spirits but an eternity of all that is most noble, graceful, and beautiful in the human city. If human existence is inextricable from the life of the human city, then the human city will be raised from the dead with humankind, freed from all that is enslaving, dehumanizing, and tragic. 

The human city throughout history seems to have had intimations of its own immortality. Jacques Ellul wrote: “Our cities . . . are a sign of the world’s destiny, because these cities bear in their bosoms all the hopes of man for divinity.” Human cities at their most noble and beautiful are never merely practical; they are cosmic. They seek to embody in their layout, buildings, institutions, streets, landmarks, civic rituals, symbols, and stories the abode of the city of the gods. 

The more the whole culture of a city is based on a rich, expressive symbol system, the more significant it is. Cities are often founded, for instance, on a claim to divine intervention: Rome on the myth of Romulus and Remus; Jerusalem on the spot where Adam is buried; Salt Lake City on a dream of creating the new Jerusalem. The city at its best generates its initiatives from dreams of a great and unlimited future, not from short-term or purely pragmatic ideals. The city is the place of hopes and dreams, as the utopian thought of Plato, Augustine, and Thomas More attest. The city is the repository of common memories (which is why people love old cities). The city symbolizes deeds and achievements not yet possible (which is why we love bustling cities and dislike dull ones). At its most humane, the city is not a faceless or shapeless amalgam, but a patterned and harmonious ordering of household, neighborhood, public institution, and civic center. In the good city, industry and commerce, education and intellectual pursuit, religion and spiritual expression, art and festival coexist dynamically and interconnectedly. A city that ignores nature becomes a machine; a city that crowns nature is glorious. 

The ancient art of civility is the art of living together in the city gracefully and cooperatively; civility exists to make good citizens, and its lack occasions the worst evils of the city. Civility at its best involves the advancement and acceptance of well-established personal and communal rituals that are beautiful, dignified, and graceful. The opposite of good manners is fighting in the streets. 

The more a city at all levels has a well-defined ritual and symbol system, the more humane, noble, and beautiful it is. The great public rituals of a city are particularly important. Washington is never more Washington than when it inaugurates or buries a President. London is never more London than when its citizenry gathers for a great royal occasion. Salt Lake City is never more Salt Lake City than on July 24, when its foundation on that date in 1847 is remembered and celebrated. In its civic rituals and manners, its symbols, monuments, and historic spaces, the life of a city is condensed, unified, and displayed. 

If the features of the earthly city are most fully manifested in its civic rituals and symbols, the fullest expression of the holy and eternal city is found in the liturgy. The task of the liturgy is to symbolize and sacramentalize the liturgy of the heavenly city in the midst of the earthly city. Through its liturgical life, the Church becomes a living icon of Heaven, an arena in which the drama of the holy city is enacted, an anticipation of the redeemed life of the New Jerusalem. 

In the Western world for nearly two millennia, great urban churches have played a crucial role in unifying the heavenly and earthly cities. If in the Church the heavenly city descends to earth, then in the Church also the earthly city is raised up, its sight lifted to heaven. The liturgy of the Church is the embodiment on earth of the life and language of the heavenly city. The public worship of the Christian community gathers up the liturgy of the human city, what Teilhard de Chardin called the “Mass on the World,” the “Hymn of the Universe,” and what Karl Rahner spoke of as the “Liturgy of the World.” The liturgy gives expression to the religious yearnings of the human city. This is what Louis Bouyer meant when he said that in the vision of the Fathers of the Church, “the whole world is essentially liturgical.” 

The Church is‚ or should be‚ never more intensely aware of the city than when at worship. In liturgy, the Church is opened out to the world, and the world in all its dimensions is drawn into the act of worship. Aidan Kavanagh writes: “What the liturgical assembly of Christian orthodoxy does is the world. Where the liturgical assembly does this is the public forum of the world’s radical business, the Thingplatz of a restored and redeemed creation. When the liturgical assembly does this is the moment of the world’s rebirth—the eighth day of creation, the first day of the last and newest age.” Nothing less “rides upon the act of the assembly, determines its style, lays bare its service and mission for the life of the world.”

Both Kavanagh and Jesuit theologian John Baldovin have shown how early Christian worship was a highly civic affair, just as the Church itself was from the beginning a public, urban institution. Baldovin describes how in medieval Jerusalem, Rome, Constantinople, and many other cities where Christianity formed the symbolic basis for social life, worship was not confined to the neighborhood church. “It was public; it acclaimed the society’s connectedness with the sacred; it made the streets and plazas sacred places in addition to the churches and shrines.” Even more significantly, Baldovin says, “the early churches were not only part of the city, they represented it. They were a miniature representation of public life.” The early Christian church building, the basilica, “did not separate Christians from the city, like a kind of sacred oasis, but rather brought the city and its concerns into the church.” St. Augustine could say: “The house of God is itself a city.” 

This vision has enormous practical implications for how liturgy is conducted. Liturgy must be public rather than private, civic rather than domestic, cosmic and not merely psychological, natural and not simply spiritual. The Church and its liturgy do not exist in a place apart from the human city but as institutions in the midst of the city gracefully transfusing and redeeming its life. The liturgy is the unification of the New Jerusalem and the human city, so that in the process everything human is redeemed. 

By now the reader may be asking how the liturgy is capable of so monumental a task. Narrowly conceived, it cannot possibly carry such weight. But the liturgy is not contained or restricted within the time and space of Sunday morning. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of Vatican II pointed out that the liturgy is the “fount” and “summit”—the beginning and end—of the Church’s life, but it is not all there is or all that needs to be done in Christian life. Liturgy flows out into catechesis, charity, education, pastoral care, and evangelization. 

One of my favorite functional images of the Church is one suggested some years ago by Gregory Pierce of the Chicago-based National Center for the Laity: the Church as “campaign headquarters.” The parish church is not a club, not a therapeutic institution, not an arena of escape. It is the place where the people of God formally gather and prepare to go out to do the business of redeeming the city. This point is captured in the very meaning of the word “liturgy”: public work or public service. 

One can specify the way in which the liturgy flows out into public service by reference to three symbolic places that highlight human needs at their most severe: Babel, Rameses, and Philistia. Two are cities; the third a pseudo-city. These three places represent, in different ways, human deprivation in civic configuration: Babel, the city of confusion; Rameses, the city of sin and oppression; Philistia, the pseudo-city of ugliness. Taken together, they correspond negatively to the theological transcendentals: truth, goodness, and beauty. 

Over these three symbolic cities reigns the city that is their radical opposite in all respects: the new and eternal Jerusalem, the city of goodness, truth, and beauty. The Church, in its liturgy and the ministries consequent to it, is called to do nothing less than embody the New Jerusalem in the midst of the modern city in which the ghosts of Babel, Rameses, and Philistia are sighted often. 

As the story is told in Genesis 11:1-9, Babel is the archetype of the confused, disoriented, fragmented city—the place where, to humble human pride, “the Lord confused the speech of all the world.” The confusion of Babel is significant because it has been replicated in every city in history. In the poem “The Rock,” T. S. Eliot described modern London as a city full of the “knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.” James Dougherty of the University of Notre Dame describes the modern city as “never silent; it speaks with a voice of its own, the voice of false prophets in Jerusalem, of sophists in Athens and Carthage, of gramophones and television in London and Wichita. Like the prophet’s cry, the city’s own voice summons the citizens to believe—but to believe in their common self-sufficiency and in the durability and satisfaction of the city’s goods. Its call to worship is ultimately to self-worship.”

The problems of Babel are reflected in modern America in our ongoing debates about history, identity, the future, and how we can live together as a nation. The America of the recent past has lost faith in words, in reliably coherent meanings, in the possibility of common language, in the very idea of truth. We live increasingly in a culture in which language is suspect, a culture of contestation regarding meaning, a world of illusions and hyperreality. 

The mission of the Church is to reverse Babel, to give new voice and understanding to communities struggling to achieve meaning. Such a reversal began at Pentecost. We read in the Acts of the Apostles (2:4–11): The disciples “were filled with the Holy Spirit. They began to express themselves in foreign tongues and make bold proclamation as the Spirit prompted them . . . . [The people] asked in utter amazement, . . . ‘How is it that each of us hears them in his native tongue? We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites. We live in Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus, the province of Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya around Cyrene . . . . Yet each of us hears them speaking in his own tongue about the marvels God has accomplished.’” 

The mission of the Church is to speak the language of Pentecost, to introduce this voice into the city of Babel, to find and engage those voices in Babel that seek out and give expression to truth. Christians individually and the Church corporately are called to a ministry of the word that will redeem the language of the city, provide a meaningful account of life, and enable the citizenry to speak a language that is unitive, cooperative, and dialogical. 

In their liturgical assemblies, the churches end the Scripture readings with “The Word of the Lord,” or some variation thereof. What an earth-shaking proclamation! Can the mayor say of his or her speeches, “The Word of the Lord”? The university president? The head of the Chamber of Commerce? Too easily and often Christian disciples take the word of God in their midst for granted. Do the inhabitors of churches really believe that God is present in the word, that Christ himself is speaking? That the world is being created anew by the word formally proclaimed every Sunday? 

When I see the Gospel book carried solemnly by the deacon in procession with candle bearers, reverently venerated with incense, solemnly proclaimed, kissed by the bishop and carefully enthroned, I think of what Annie Dillard asks about Christian worship:

Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.

I find the mainstream churches in America today—Protestant and Catholic—very unserious about the word on Sunday morning. Those who read it do so casually, congregations wait for it to end, homilists treat it as occasionally useful thought-starters. The invocation of the speech of heaven has become psychologized, privatized, and powerless. 

Only when the Church has its own house in decent order can it become a credible place of public education, conversation, and dialogue. It can go out to, and invite in, the city and its institutions—including the university, the government, business, and the professions—so that the wisdom of God and the voices of the city may meet for the salvation of the world. 

Around the ambos and pulpits in our churches on Sunday morning gather the citizens of the human city to hear and celebrate a redeeming word that, were it fully effected, would mean the triumph of the New Jerusalem over Babel. The journey from Babel to the Heavenly City is the awesome responsibility of the Church. Standing as a permanent sacrament of Pentecost, the Church draws the world forward out of the old city and into the new and eternal city of truth. 

The second symbolic city, Rameses, evokes the human city in desperate need of justice, holiness, goodness, freedom, and dignity. Rameses in Egypt was one of the dreadful places where the enslaved Hebrew people were forced to construct a “supply city” for Pharaoh. We read in Exodus 1: 8-14: “Then a new king . . . came to power in Egypt. He said to his subjects, ‘Look how numerous and powerful the Israelite people are growing . . . . Come, let us deal shrewdly with them.’ . . . Accordingly, taskmasters were set over the Israelites to oppress them with forced labor. Thus they had to build for Pharaoh the supply cities of Pithom and Rameses . . . . The Egyptians, then, dreaded the Israelites and reduced them to cruel slavery, making life bitter for them with hard work in mortar and brick and all kinds of field work—the whole cruel fate of slaves.” 

The Bible is replete with dreadful cities like Rameses, as is human history, ancient and modern. The human city has gathered together and intensified all the personal and communal vices of which human beings are capable—pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, sloth, injustice, opportunism, inequality, lying, cheating, neglect, competitiveness, and violence—all that constitute moral slavery. 

These vices are by no means unique to the city, but the city seems to put them under pressure, to advertise them and give them a high profile. Because of this, not a few commentators have taken a distinctly negative view of the human city. Jacques Ellul declares: “All the inhabitants of the city are sooner or later destined to become prostitutes and members of the proletariat.” 

The history of the human city may be read in biblical terms as a movement from Rameses to the New Jerusalem. Jesus prefigured the advent of the eternal city of holiness, goodness, and liberation in a key moment in Nazareth at the beginning of his public ministry. In the Gospel of Luke we read: “Jesus came to Nazareth . . . and entering the synagogue on the sabbath . . . he stood up to do the reading. When the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed him, he unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written: ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me; therefore he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, recovery of sight to the blind and release to prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord.’ . . . Then he began by saying to them, ‘Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing’” (4:14–19). 

In this crucial event, Jesus gathered up all the hopes of Israel, all the dreams of Isaiah and the prophets, and he announced the inauguration of the long-expected era of divine salvation, redemption, healing, and joy. That moment in Nazareth prefigured everything Jesus was to do in his public ministry. 

Jesus’ ministry of inaugurating the holy city of God within the conditions of the human city continues in the life of the Church, and stands at the very heart of what the Church must do in history. This ministry, like all others, is symbolically condensed in the liturgy. The worshiping assembly of the Christian community embodies a whole ethical philosophy and way of life founded on the holiness, justice, and righteousness of God in Christ. When we step into the world of the liturgy, we are already in an arena of ethical and moral goodness transcending anything available in the human city. We are already living out the ethics of the holy city. 

In the liturgy is set forth a whole system of redeemed interrelationships. Liturgy offers a communal model of existence rather than an individualistic one. At the Lord’s Table people of all classes and races are welcome—surely a model of coexistence that is by no means common in the human city. Where but in the liturgical assembly are governors and bag ladies, rich and poor, white, black, and brown brought together in solidarity? In the Eucharist we share our resources by offering gifts. In the Mass we offer the kind of sacrifice that, to mean anything, as the prophets constantly proclaimed, must be translated into daily mercy and justice. In the Eucharist we seek forgiveness publicly and offer each other the sign of peace—gestures that have much to say in a world of self-assertiveness, hostility, and violence. We take the Eucharist out to the homes of the shut-in, thereby taking a stance against the abandonment and marginalizing of the old in urban wastelands. In baptism men and women are declared children of God and endowed with a value beyond anything they could ever earn for themselves. In penance we say that no one is beyond the pale of God’s mercy. 

What a vision this holds up in a world prone to vengeance, condemnation, and the rejection of the sinner, the prisoner, and the criminal. We anoint the sick and minister to them as Christ did, fighting every social tendency to see illness and old age as meaningless and worthless. In all our liturgies we pray for the Church, the world, the local community, and those in need—and then are sent out to help effect that for which we have prayed. 

Why the liturgy today does not seem to have the ethical and socially transforming power I am describing here is a complex matter. We can be sure, however, that if the liturgy is not a public affair, is not a liturgy of the city, then its interests will not be in social transformation. If liturgy is a small group gathering for therapeutic purposes, then its gaze will be inward and, both conceptually and practically, it will abandon the city. Christians need a new awareness of what we are doing ethically in the liturgy. We need to take seriously one of the most neglected rites of all, the dismissal rite—which sends us on a sanctifying mission into the city. If we do not take the dismissal seriously in this respect, then the liturgy becomes, as the Old Testament prophets never tired of saying, false worship. 

The Church’s social teaching is not a question of dabbling in politics. We cannot forget that the word “politics” comes from the Greek word polis—the city. The Church should never “dabble” in politics; it must competently, systematically, and confidently immerse itself in the political, in the life of the polis. The Church must avoid, of course, intrusion into governmental politics, steer clear of secular platforms and shun party allegiances. Nevertheless, it must involve itself in what Robert Webber and Rodney Clapp call “depth politics,” or what Robert Jenson calls “eschatological politics”—politics in its deepest connection to the coming of God’s Kingdom. 

In its moral and social ministries, then, the urban church is called to prefigure the redeemed city in which there will be no more death, mourning, or pain, no more evil or sin. Local churches should be places of energetic and systematic charity and service, hospitality and welcome, advocacy and vigilance; zones of sanctuary for the poor, homeless, lonely, depressed; agencies of forgiveness, wisdom, and sanctification. 

The journey from Rameses to the shalom of the New Jerusalem is the awesome responsibility of the Church. Standing as a permanent sacrament, it draws the world forward out of the old city and into the new and eternal city of goodness. 

We turn finally to the pseudo-city of Philistia, a name synonymous with ugliness and anti-aestheticism. In the dictionary, a Philistine is not only “a native or inhabitant of ancient Philistia” but “a crass, prosaic, often priggish individual guided by material rather than by intellectual or artistic values.” If, as recent scholars have suggested, the Philistines have been unfairly caricatured in this regard, then the lesson may be that every city is Philistia: every city embodies ugliness, crassness, and materialism—the antitheses of beauty. 

Beauty in the Scriptures is largely related to the concept of glory, especially the glory of God. If the liturgy is the principal manifestation of God’s worldly presence, then it is, by that fact, the primordial place of God’s glory, the ongoing event of transfiguration, the sacrament of beauty. The liturgy of the Church is at its best an invocation, an embodiment, an anticipation of the beautiful city, the New Jerusalem. The Catechism of the Catholic Church aptly describes the sacraments and the liturgy in artistic terms as “God’s masterpieces,” “the masterworks of God.” 

The liturgy of Eastern Christianity has given far more attention than has the West to the theme of divine glory, splendor, and beauty. Eastern church history contains striking accounts of liturgical occasions as encounters with God’s glory. In the late tenth century, we are told, the grand prince Vladimir from what is today the Ukraine was planning to introduce his people into the civilized world. So he sent ambassadors in search of a religion of truth and beauty. The ambassadors came back and reported negatively about Jewish, Muslim, and Latin worship. The last they described as without fervor, cold and dead. But among the Byzantines, they reported, the liturgy was so beautiful that “we did not know if we were in Heaven or on Earth, for on Earth there is no such beauty . . . . Only one thing do we know: that God was living there with men, and that their form of worship is the best of all. We cannot forget this beauty.” Not surprisingly, the biblical event of the Transfiguration is central to Eastern conceptions of the liturgy. 

It could hardly be said that the liturgy of the West lacks beauty or is unconcerned about beauty (though philistinism in liturgical guise is far too readily identifiable today, and modern American liturgical practice is not generally known for its beauty, glory, or solemnity). Western liturgy has had and continues to have its glorious expressions: Chartres Cathedral, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, the Abbey of Melk, Palestrina, Mozart, Britten, Vaughan Williams, Cranmer’s English, Evensong at King’s College in Cambridge, the preaching at the National Cathedral in Washington. Yet beauty in Western liturgy is all too often regarded as accidental. The basic problem is that the churches of the West—unlike the East—lack an adequate theology of beauty, an omission partially compensated for by the work in recent years of Roman Catholics Hans Urs von Balthasar and John Saward and Anglicans John Riches and Richard Harries. 

But because beauty is regarded in Western liturgy as an accident, a luxury, a decoration, it should not be surprising that Western culture has made beauty accidental also. Consider the modern movement in architecture and urban planning, which, in its rationalism and functionalism, has left cities and public spaces very unbeautiful indeed. In the West, we imprison beauty in museums and concert halls; we have taken beauty off the streets and out of our public places. At the same time, popular culture has become ugly, superficial, and stultifying. We have lost the ability to celebrate, to hold festival, to be playful in the most profound sense. Our social rituals are more and more rough and primitive. America today is not a polite society, meaning that the daily rituals of the polis are in a state of disintegration. 

In an increasingly materialistic culture, the ordinary, the mundane, and the worldly are not, ironically, taken more seriously than in religious cultures; they are taken less seriously. What, for example, do water, wine, wheat, work, creativity, and leisure mean in popular cultural terms? They are merely functional and utilitarian. But place these in a sacramental context, as occurs habitually in the East, and they become elements of God’s glory, of divine beauty. Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov says about created reality that “everything is destined for a liturgical fulfillment.” Olive oil and water “attain their fullness as (conductor) elements for grace on regenerated man. Wheat and wine achieve their ultimate raison d’être in the eucharistic chalice.” The Church’s worship “integrates the most elementary actions of life: drinking, eating, washing, speaking, acting, communion . . . . It restores to them their meaning and true destiny, that is, to be building blocks in the cosmic temple of God’s glory.” 

What is human work but a participation in divine creation? What is leisure but an anticipation of the unlabored life of heaven? What does the artist do but restore creation to its divine origin and end? Beauty in all its material and practical expressions exists to draw humanity into the redeeming beauty of God. This is surely what Dostoevsky had in mind when one of his characters in The Idiot declares that “beauty will save the world.” 

This doxological and aesthetic vision provides the protocol for the Church’s ministry of and to the arts. Churches do not hold organ recitals, arts festivals, and concerts simply because these are nice, inspiring pursuits. Commitment to the beautiful is intrinsic to the Church’s life for the reason that the Church’s vision is the eternally beautiful city. This commitment, it may be argued, is especially incumbent upon large and well-endowed urban churches.

The Church today can play a role in bringing the arts back from alienation from the transcendent—an alienation that has led the arts themselves into severe disorientation and crisis. Church art programs can elevate and ennoble what beauty exists in the human city and among its artists and poets. 

The eucharistic preface of All Saints’ Day in the Roman rite calls the liturgy “the festival of your holy city, the heavenly Jerusalem, our mother.” The Church, through its public worship, can model a conception of the city that is festive and majestic. It can raise the sights of Philistia to the heights of glory. 

The journey from Philistia to Zion is the awesome responsibility of the Church. Standing as a permanent sacrament of the Transfiguration, it draws forward the old city into the new and eternal city of beauty—a city in which truth, justice, and beauty embrace in God—a city on which all men and women (whether they know it or not) have already set their hearts. 

The vision set forth here is idealistic, daunting, unrealistic to be sure (in the sense of being inexhaustible), and we can only take stabs at it; only in the Kingdom of God will it finally materialize. But, as Proverbs says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (29:18). There can be no doubt that the crisis in Christianity today is profoundly connected to a loss of heavenly vision. 

Monsignor M. Francis Mannion is rector of the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City, president of the Society for Catholic Liturgy, and editor of Antiphon: A Journal for Liturgical Renewal.

Photo by Jean-Christophe BENOIST via Creative Commons. Image cropped.