The Church Building
(Wednesday, September 13, 2006; St. Peter Cathedral, El Cajon, California)
The ceremony of the Divine Mysteries finds expression in a building, which we call a church. Because the purpose of this building is precisely to house this ceremony, it should be fitted accordingly – that is, the architecture should fit the ceremonial needs. This is to implement seriously what is formulated in the Letter to the Hebrews (8:1-6/9:11-12):
“…They worship in a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary, as Moses was warned when he was about to erect the tabernacle. For he says: ‘See that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.’… But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that have come to be, passing through the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made by hands, that is not belonging to this creation, he entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.”
Indeed, at the cross “Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.” Then, “The veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom.” (Mk 15:38). The old temple with its priesthood and sacrifices was dissolved; the new temple was going to be established, with its High Priest and perfect sacrifice.
In the new temple, therefore, the liturgical focal point of the church building is the sanctuary or beth qudhsha,which is separated from the nave by a veil or curtain (sitra or wela). The term qanke, (literally: doors) is the most common term for the sanctuary. Inside the qanke is the altar, at the east end of which is the cross and icon representing the glorified human image of the Lord, facing west and representing dawning sun. Golgotha and the empty tomb are the main points of reference for the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, and therefore, the cross and the altar are focal features of the New Temple built for the perpetual Offering.
It is upon the altar that the Sacrifice of the Divine Mysteries is offered, and therefore nothing should be placed upon the altar except the linens proper for the sacred vessels, the gifts to be consecrated, and the book of the ritual. That is, candles should not be on the altar but close to it, quite conveniently under the cross. It is advisable that the book of the Gospels be placed on a stand to one side of the cross, and the tabernacle to the other, so as to give no ceremonial conflict between consecrated and unconsecrated elements. The qanke should be covered by a veil, to be opened and closed at the noted points in the Holy Liturgy.
The other side of the veil is where the episcopal chair should be situated, and where the celebrant also should be seated during the Instructional section of the Divine Mysteries, that is, during the readings, homily and supplication. Moreover, two pulpits, one for the Old Testament readings, and the other for the New Testament readings should be placed in the Outer Qanke, one to the right side of the cross, the other to the left side, respectively. Not far from the celebrant’s chair, a table should be arranged, on which are to be placed the paten containing the bread together with the chalice, as well as the cruets of wine and water.
Adjacent to the qanke is the qastroma, a large platform in which the deacons and, if there is one, the choir, are situated, representing the angels who chant in worship at the Heavenly Liturgy.
In the nave of the church (haykla), the bema is the place where the clergy sits for the readings, surrounded by the pews of the faithful. According to the present directives, there are two types of beme: original and functional. An original bema should be in the middle of the nave, while a functional bema should be off to the side of theqastroma, at some distance from the center of the qanke, in order to allow for the possibility of some procession during the entrance of the Divine Liturgy and for the presentation of the Gifts. The aisle between the original median bema and the qanke is called the shaqona.
Prayer with the Back to the Cross
Furthermore, a most drastic change has happened, during these last decades, in many Chaldean dioceses and churches, wherein the Chaldean celebrant, imitating the Latin Rite celebrant, reversed the direction of prayer and, without concern, mingled both sections of the Mass.
In fact, in the historic design of the Chaldean Mass there is a clear distinction between the first Instructional Section, perceived as a journey of the Church – like the disciples of Emmaus – and the Eucharistic section, which begins with the Presentation. The first part proceeds in a movement between the qanke and the bema and has for its focal point the stands of the readings. The second section occurs in the sanctuary and has for its focal point the altar, which is directed toward the cross. As the Prefect of the Congregation for Doctrine of Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger (now Holy Father Benedict XVI) said in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy: “For the Liturgy of the Word is about speaking and responding, and so a face-to-face exchange between proclaimer and hearer does make sense…On the other hand, a common turning to the East during the Eucharistic Prayer remains essential. This is not a case of something accidental, but of what is essential. Looking at the priest has no importance. What matters is looking together at the Lord.” (p. 81)
As far as the direction of prayer is concerned, sadly enough, this is what happens in many Chaldean churches today: the celebrant goes, immediately after the prayer preceding Lakhu Mara, to stand behind the altar, with his back to the cross; he leaves that location for the reading of the Gospel and the sermon; then he returns to the same position to perform the Presentation; he then descends toward the people for the Creed, and returns again with his back to the cross to recite the Eucharistic Prayer, the Our Father and what follows until Communion, and doing the same for the final prayers after Communion. This unjustified recent use, or abuse to be more accurate, contradicts the whole tradition of the Chaldean Church in celebrating the Eucharist, as well as the historic comprehensive design of the Chaldean Mass and the harmony of its texts, and disregards gravely theInstruction of the Holy See for the Application of the Liturgical Prescriptions of the Code of Canons for the Eastern Churches: “This practice (i.e. praying towards the east), threatened in many Eastern Catholic Churches because of a new and recent Latin influence, has thus a profound value and must be safeguarded, it being strongly coherent with the Eastern spirituality.” (Vatican: 1996, No. 107). The Liturgy therefore becomes disoriented in the manner described by the
same above-quoted eminent author in the same book:
Now the priest – the “presider”, as they now prefer to call him – becomes the real point of reference for the whole liturgy. Everything depends on him. We have to see him, to respond to him, to be involved in what he is doing. His creativity sustains the whole thing…Less and less is God in the picture. More and more important is what is done by the human beings who meet here and do not like to subject themselves to a “pre-determined pattern”. The turning of the priest toward the people has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle. In its outward form, it no longer opens out on what lies ahead and above, but is closed in on itself. The common turning toward the east was not a “celebration toward the wall;” it did not mean that the priest “had his back to the people:” the priest himself was not regarded as so important. For, just as the congregation in the synagogue looked together toward Jerusalem, so in the Christian liturgy, the congregation looked together “toward the Lord.” (p. 80)
Thus, the new Reform preserves duly and fully the Celebrant’s attitude of standing in front of the Cross at the moment of the Divine Offering, as alike at Golgotha, did Mary the Blessed Mother, John the Beloved Disciple, and the holy women (John 19, 25).