Sermon: The Gate of Heaven and the House of God
On July 19, the year of our Lord 1970, St. John the Evangelist parish celebrated a significant milestone: the dedication of our new parish church by Bishop Leo Pursley. After 110 years of worshipping in a small church with a capacity of perhaps 100 people, the parish had slowly acquired properties at the northwest corner of Main and Monroe streets in preparation for this monumental project – in today’s money, the cost of property acquisition alone was nearly half a million dollars.
The construction of this new church was a bold move not only for the finances of the parish, but for the standing of the Catholic Church in Goshen, Indiana. The property for the new church, slowly amassed over the preceding decades, stood at one of the most prominent places of any church in town – even as anti-Catholic sentiment remained strong in this community. In a statement of faith and determination, our parish dedicated a new church in a prominent location four times the size of its predecessor. The message that Catholicism was here to stay could not have been missed.
This new church was important not only because of its more prominent size and location, though. A Catholic church is much more than a meeting hall or a worship space. Unlike the buildings of other ecclesial communities, a Catholic church is set aside for divine worship by a particular liturgy of dedication or consecration. It is not merely because of our gathering in this place that it becomes sacred, but because God’s action through the sacred liturgy in a specific time and place – in the case of this church, at the hands of a successor of the Apostles, Bishop Leo Pursley, 50 years ago today.
The readings and chants of this Mass – mirroring as closely as possible the ones that were used at the Mass of dedication 50 years ago – emphasize the continuity of Christian worship with the Jewish worship in the Temple. We hear from the Book of Chronicles about the dedication of the Temple of Solomon, on which occasion the priests sacrificed more sheep and oxen than could be counted and sprinkled their spilled blood upon the people as a sign of the sacrifice’s power to cleanse their sins. And yet, there is clearly something different taking place here today. The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that the blood sprinkled upon us in this temple is not that of sheep and oxen but of Jesus Christ, the mediator of a new covenant. Like the Temple of Solomon, this temple exists for sacrifice – the renewal of the sacrifice of Christ, where He is both priest and victim upon the altar of the Cross.
The dedication of our new parish church took place at a critical moment in the life of the Church. Only eight months before, after a transitional period lasting about five years in most places, the implementation of the mid-twentieth century liturgical reforms had reached a more or less definitive point, with sweeping changes such as worship in the common language, different postures, different music, etc. By July of 1970, it had become commonplace to build churches in a rather different style, and yet the wisdom and prudence of Fr. Cis and the St. John’s parishioners kept our parish from being caught up in a short-lived fad that produced so many churches with a dizzying lack of symmetry, depressing lack of natural light, and a brutalist aesthetic. Instead, they wisely chose to root the new church in traditional Western architecture in a style that, while not typical of Catholic churches, was nevertheless immediately recognizable as sacred.
While many churches today resemble oversized pole barns (and many from the era of the St. John’s construction are so ugly and bizarre that they could only be a church), our parish church’s recognizably sacred architecture is a bold witness to the divine in a world that struggles to recognize the presence of God. A Catholic church is not merely a place for people to gather. Like the Temple of Solomon, it is a place where the cloud of God’s presence has come to rest – not upon the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the staff of Moses, the tablets of the law, and the manna from the desert – but upon the One whom that cloud represented: Jesus Christ, present really, truly, substantially in the Blessed Sacrament.
The theme for each Mass is set by its entrance antiphon – or introit. The one for this Mass is notoriously tricky to translate – “Terribilis est locus iste.” Literally: terrible is this place. Different versions render that first word as “great and terrible,” “wondrous,” or “awesome.” The words come from the exclamation of the patriarch Jacob after God appeared to him in a dream and are also contained on the plaque in the main entrance to the church commemorating its dedication.
Some churches live up to this dedication through their soaring Gothic vaults or stunning marble carvings. But these representations in art are only reminders of what is most important: the divine presence within. A common inscription is found above the doors to many churches: “Domus Dei et porta caeli” – the house of God and the gate of heaven. Any door to this church is truly the gate of heaven, because the One who dwells within, the One who makes this place great, terrible, and wondrous, is the same Jesus Christ who reigns victorious in Heaven.
For fifty years, this great and wondrous place has stood, recalling the minds of men and women to the infinitely greater and more wondrous Lord who has made this humble dwelling His home. More has happened in the intervening fifty years than the crowd that July day could ever have imagined. We have seen five popes, nine US presidents, massive changes in society for good and ill, moments of tragedy that have shaken our community and our nation to their core, moments of hope and ingenuity that inspired us, eight economic recessions, and times of economic prosperity that a Midwestern manufacturing community could never have expected to see this far into the 21st century. Perhaps most impressive of all, who of those gathered on July 19, 2020 would have imagined that St. John the Evangelist would grow to boast one of the highest weekly attendances in our city within 50 years?
On July 19th, 1970, the country stood at a turning point in an increasingly unpopular war with millions of casualties as a national protest movement divided the country. Following the post-World War II boom, the national economy seemed stuck in a series of recessions that would not break until the 1990s (a total of eight, according to economics, from 1970 until today). Assassinations and scandals brought instability to the nation’s political life. In more recent years, Goshen and Elkhart County have weathered numerous other challenges such as rapidly changing demographics and the worst unemployment rate in the country during the Great Recession of 2008-2009. And yet, through it all, this parish church has stood as a reminder of the primacy of God in our lives and His real presence among us.
Today – July 19, 2020 – our country and local community face a challenge unlike any seen since the building of this church – the greatest public health crisis for over a century. This crisis, like so many we have faced in the past, can also be overcome and our parish will learn to flourish in the midst of it. We will only do so, though, by fidelity to the lesson taught by this anniversary of the dedication of our parish church: the primacy of Jesus Christ in our lives.
Just as this church was built rooted in the tradition of our Catholic faith, that same rootedness is what will enable our parish to continue to flourish for the next fifty years. Despite certain liturgical and architectural fads at the time of this church’s building and in the intervening years since, Christ in the Blessed Sacrament has always been present in the center of our church. This testimony to the primacy of Christ’s presence in the Most Holy Eucharist in our worship speaks to us of the primacy that the Eucharist must have in our lives. By living lives focused on Christ – present in one another, in the world around us, but most especially in the Most Holy Eucharist – we can overcome the doubt and uncertainty of the present times and continue our pilgrimage to the Heavenly Jerusalem represented for us by the church whose anniversary we celebrate today. Great and wonderful is this place – truly it is the gate of heaven, and the house of God.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist, Goshen
50th Anniversary of the Dedication of the Parish Church – 19.VII.MMXX