Growing parishes face many challenges when it comes to expanding their church buildings. Common obstacles can be related to fundraising, design challenges, logistics during construction, site constraints, parking limitations, etc. Yet for all the challenges and potential pitfalls, the need for space in a growing community is very real; and the pinch can be felt each and every weekend.
If we listen carefully, the Gospels actually tell us about the first overcrowded church. It is one of my favorite scenes from the life of Christ, and it is the Gospel reading from St. Luke for the Monday of the Second week of Advent. Following the tremendously beautiful first reading from Isaiah 35, we hear a story of healing. Jesus is fulfilling the great Old Testament prophecy, in fact “making firm the knees that are weak.” In this example, He forgives the sins and heals the body of the paralytic lowered down through the roof by his friends.
And the reason that this passage is so meaningful for me as a church architect is that the building creates the conflict, gives ‘structure’ to the story, then works in a sacramental manner for the good of all involved. Our ears usually miss it, for we rightfully focus on the inter-personal aspects and the teaching on Christ’s authority contained within this short narrative. But consider the building for a moment.
We hear the story in all three synoptic Gospels, (Matthew 9:1–8; Mark 2:1–12; Luke 5:17–26) but only in Mark and Luke is Jesus inside the house. And in fact in Mark’s account the building is referred to as Jesus’ own home.
Then arises the conflict – the Lord’s own house is filled to overflowing by those who have come to hear his Word. And the one in need of healing is not able to enter. The tension between benefit and detriment here is real – the building provides necessary shelter and structure, it marks a place, provides a home, and allows for those outside to come in. However the building also imposes a limitation, an obstacle, and a barrier especially for those who have come late to the Lord.
There simply is not enough room! As if it were standing room only at the 9:00 am Mass and even the Narthex is overflowing out the front door! The truth, goodness, and beauty of our Lord has attracted many, “who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem.”
So what to do? The friends do not hesistate. Break open the building!
“And some men brought on a stretcher a man who was paralyzed; they were trying to bring him in and set him in his presence.
But not finding a way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on the stretcher through the tiles into the middle in front of Jesus.”
When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “As for you, your sins are forgiven.”
Those men, who presumably had already encountered our Lord, perform a great act of faith; and the structure is broken apart so that their friend can encounter the Lord and be healed. This is a tremendous reality – the faith of those who have brought this man inspires them to go to such great lengths as to demolish a portion of the roof to bring their friend into close encounter with Jesus!
Notice that the building actually allows this act of faith to take place. We can assume that it would not have been counted to their credit to have stubbornly shoved aside those people already gathered in the crowd. But the building itself is both the obstacle and the very means through which these friends can perform their great act of faith.
I would argue that this is precisely the same act of faith performed by a growing parish community setting out to build or expand their facilities, especially a new church. We do not build churches for our own gratification or for merely mundane purposes. No, we build, and renovate, and expand churches so that more and more people can encounter our Lord and be touched by his healing presence. The evangelical thrust of this Gospel is so fundamental and direct. The friends of the paralytic go to great effort to bring the man to the Lord, and it is not by his own faith, but rather by their intercession that he is healed; “when Jesus saw their faith…”
Even the Psalm that we pray in today’s lectionary, Psalm 85, it also touches on this reality of the desire to hear the Word of God in the place where He dwells among us:
“I will hear what God proclaims;
the LORD –for he proclaims peace to his people.
Near indeed is his salvation to those who fear him,
glory dwelling in our land.”
Therefore we should be single-minded as to why we pursue goodness, truth, and beauty in our church buildings – and that is so that others – in our time and in generations to come - would be attracted to that Glory dwelling in our land, to hear the Word of God, and be healed as they are brought near to Him in His own home, the domus Dei.