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The church and the temple

Quoting 2 Cor 6:16, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “the Holy Spirit makes the Church ‘the temple of the living God’ ” (797) and again that “the Church is the Temple of the Holy Spirit” (809). The main Old Testament reference here is the temple built by Solomon (c. 970-930BC). What is the relationship between the temple of Solomon and the church which is described as the new temple?

This relationship hinges on what the Old Testament sanctuaries were meant to represent. First, a sanctuary is essentially a place where God and man meet and where man offers worship to God. Solomon’s temple certainly served this function. In 1 Kgs 8, God overshadows the temple in a cloud and Solomon offers sacrifices to him. This is the paradigm for every Old Testament sanctuary. For example, God also overshadows the Ark of the Covenant in the tabernacle built by Moses in the wilderness. There likewise God dwells in the tabernacle in the middle of the Israelites, who through the Levites offer sacrifices.

It is known from biblical descriptions of the tabernacle and Solomon’s temple that these two sanctuaries have the same essential structure: a series of concentric rooms, the innermost of which is known as the Holy of Holies and contains the ark. Solomon’s temple appears to have been built on the pattern of the tabernacle. Where did the pattern for Moses’ tabernacle come from? Interestingly, God commanded Moses to construct the tabernacle and its paraphernalia “after the pattern for them, which is being shown you on the mountain” (Ex 25:40). So, Solomon’s temple has its basis in blueprints given by God, but God’s command makes it sound like Moses is seeing something up there on Mt. Sinai.

It appears that Moses “sees” or, maybe better, perceives the liturgical worship ongoing in heaven as the multitude of angels offers adoration to God. Moses presumably saw, as some of the prophets have (Is 6, Ez 1-2, Rev 4), the four angels that bear aloft God’s throne. The ark, upon which God descends to live among the Israelites, functions as God’s throne on earth, and it is not surprising that the ark is decorated with two golden angels. When the ark is moved into Solomon’s temple, the two angel statues on the back wall of the Holy of Holies (plus the two on the ark) complete the picture of the four angels attending God’s throne.

More importantly, Moses is shown the centrality of God and all creation oriented toward him. This is represented in the tabernacle/temple by the Holy of Holies. Scripture tells us that the Holy of Holies was a room in the shape of a perfect cube (1 Kgs 6:20). What could this correspond to? In the Book of Revelation, which is the last book of the Bible, heaven comes down to earth as a large city, which is also a cube (Rev 21:16). As odd as a cube city might seem, the dimensions are given as such showing that the Holy of Holies of the man-made sanctuaries, that is, the room wherein the presence of God especially dwells, represents heaven itself.

The main difference between this true Holy of Holies and the inner chambers of the Old Testament sanctuaries is that only the high priest of Israel could enter those, and only once a year, while the heavenly Jerusalem is where all the saints and God live together in harmony. This heavenly Jerusalem —  heaven itself — is the true sanctuary, and indeed the sanctuary that all the Old Testament ones were meant to represent. This helps to explain why the church is called the temple of God: It is the place of God’s dwelling with man, the place where true worship is offered, and the place that, at the end of time, consists of all the saved in the church triumphant in heaven. These realities were impressed into the very structure of the old sanctuaries and their rites to prepare God’s people to understand that Jesus is the true high priest, who ascends into heaven and leads the saints there as well.

Montanaro is assistant professor of sacred Scripture at Christendom Graduate School of Theology in Alexandria.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020