Every day over 40,000 people populate a relatively small church located a few miles from the capitol of the Czech Republic. At least, parts and pieces of them do. It’s a megachurch of a whole different breed. Suspended aloft is a chandelier fashioned from fingers, toes, skulls, you name it—no bone in the human body is left out. There are chalices, monstrances, candelabras, and pillars, forged not from gold or silver or bronze but the bones of departed saints.
Inside this Sedlec Ossuary or Bone Church, as it is more popularly called, an artist has literalized the verse, “surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses,” (Hebrews 12:1). These tens of thousands of “witnesses” were gathered from the nearby church cemetery, where, over the course of centuries, the bones of believers were collected when the citizens ran out of burying room. In the 19th century, an artist tackled the task of arranging them to form this most unique ecclesial architecture. Though labeled by many as macabre or grotesque, this creation nonetheless confesses a truth to which today’s church is often mute: that within the walls of God’s house, we are never alone.
But before we reflect a little more on churches and what their architecture tells us, let’s visit another church, this one half a world away from Sedlec, and worlds away from its rather raw architecture: Lakewood Church, in Houston, Texas, where Joel Osteen serves as pastor. From its tiny beginnings in a converted feed store half a century ago, Lakewood Church has mushroomed over the decades to out-mega all other megachurches in America. To accommodate such growth, in 2005, the congregation transformed the sports arena where the Houston Rockets formerly played into a 16,000 seat worship facility. While most of the arena seating remained intact, one end of the stadium was thoroughly renovated to become what traditionally would be known as the chancel. Two 30 feet waterfalls flank this platform, the volume and flow of which can be manipulated electronically. Three massive screens behind the stage project images of the preacher or other worship leaders for easy viewing throughout the vast arena. Two hundred LED lights, with their array of color options, allow for multiple mood settings. The original wood floors were covered with 50,000 square feet of carpet. In this immense church, however, what is most obvious is what is lacking, such as crosses and crucifixes, altars and icons, baptismal fonts and stained glass, along with just about everything a traditional Christian church might have. And, needless to say, in Lakewood Church, there hangs no chandelier of saints’ bones.
There was nothing haphazard in the planning and construction of either of these churches. From the color of the carpet in Lakewood to the choice of particular bones in Sedlec, the architects of each did not work willy-nilly. They had a “vision” for what a church should be, even on a sensual level—how it should look, feel, sound like, smell like, what kind of taste it should leave in your mouth, so to speak. And in accordance with their views of what a church is, or what a church ought to be, they planned and executed each of these sanctuaries. In other words, theology designed architecture, and architecture signaled theology. For sometimes, when you walk into a church, what you see is indeed what you get.
Though I can’t say as I’d want to sip the blood of Christ from a chalice wrought from human bones, neither would I want to sip Starbucks coffee from my comfy stadium seat gazing at a thirty-feet screen with Olsteen’s made-for-television smile beaming from it. Somewhere between the uber-corporeal of Sedlec and the swank-and-sexy of Lakewood, there’s a church that captures and communicates the reality of what church is: a gathering of wounded, hurting sinners around the throne of God and the Lamb, surrounded by angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, to be and become united with the crucified and resurrected Christ. That’s where I want to be.
The church on earth and the church in heaven are not two churches, but one, ever united, but never more so than in the divine liturgy, when terrestrial weds celestial, where earthly soil becomes heavenly ground. And why should not this theological reality become visible in the art and architecture of the church? Label the Sedlec Ossuary macabre, if you wish, but at least in that church there’s no missing the fact that the saints surround you in worship. What a blessing to the eyes it would be if sanctuaries had pictures and icons of the saints who have gone before us, and still join with us, in the liturgy. Also, since Christ is not only the core, central message, but the sole message of the church, why should not we give voice to the architecture so that it might preach the same? Crucifixes preach in a universal language the only knowable God; altars, the table from which we feast upon the body and blood of the Victim sacrificed for us; fonts, the bath in which the filthy garments of sinners are made white in the blood of the Lamb; incense, the smoke of supplications wafting upward to the throne as fragrant offerings of praise and petition received as Christ’s very own prayers. All of these, in their own way, are in the service of the Gospel, the truth of a God who became a man with all his senses, that man, with all his senses, might receive his life and worship him.
The art and architecture of a church are theology embodied. To as full an extent as possible, they should be didactic, teaching the faith; beautiful, imitative of the God who makes all things well; catholic, in the sense that they express the totality of the church on earth and in heaven; and permeating all of this, Christ-centered, focusing upon the enfleshed God who is the be-all and end-all of the Church. For when people step into the space in which the Lord is present, the goal is not for them to say, “This is none other than a stadium!” or “This is none other than a practical place for worship and, afterward, basketball!” but, with Jacob, “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!” (Genesis 28:17).