He dwells among us: Where heaven and earth meet

May your heart’s temple truly be God’s cathedral, where his presence dwells

By Bishop Richard F. Stika

The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. –Luke 1:3

These words of the archangel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary at the annunciation come to mind as I have watched the large elevated structure called a “baldacchino” being built over the altar in our new cathedral church.

More than an ornamental structure, the baldacchino speaks to the mystery of our faith and of our communion with God.

The most famous example of a baldacchino is found in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, rising nearly 100 feet above its altar. This elevated structure, while drawing our eyes and heart heavenward, also draws our eyes and heart to the altar as the visual center of the church where the holy sacrifice of the Mass is offered.

Its unique and imposing structure, while lending greater dignity to the altar, gives image to the overshadowing presence of God coming down from heaven. It also should remind us that we, too, are temples that God desires to overshadow so as to satisfy our heart’s longing for Him and His for us.

Growing up, I was captivated by the baldacchino and the immense beauty of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, with its vast “theology in stone” that offered so many silent lessons for me to contemplate about God and about my very self.

It was a powerful reminder to me of St. Paul’s words reminding us that we are “God’s building” and that “each one must be careful how he builds upon it” (1 Corinthians 3:9,10). I think this is why I love construction projects so much. For the construction and finishing of a church should be a beautiful image of each soul and its lifelong formation and growth in holiness.

Though a cathedral church can be built in a relatively few short years, it generally requires another 70-80 years — the span of a lifetime — to fully adorn and complete. And so it should be with each soul — we should all strive daily to be built up into a beautiful cathedral of God, adorning it more and more with our prayers and works of mercy.

The baldacchino in our cathedral sits atop four large pillars, representing the four evangelists. With its multi-windowed, roofed structure that tops out at nearly five stories high, it gives image to several passages of Scripture that are truly beautiful to contemplate.

St. John describes in the book of Revelation how he “saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (21:2). This nuptial image is captured in sculpted curtain drapings that hang beneath the base of the elevated structure. We are probably familiar with the canopied structure in Jewish weddings — called a “chuppah” — that the couple to be married stand beneath. This is the nuptial canopy that our baldacchino seeks to emphasize in the image of the drapery. It reminds me of how St. John Paul II was fond of calling the eucharistic celebration “the sacrament of the Bridegroom and Bride.”

The image of the multi-windowed dwelling also reminds us of Christ’s promise: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” where room is prepared for us (John 14:2). And like the tabernacle candle that is always lit within the sanctuary, we, too, must keep the oil lamps of our faith burning bright like the five wise virgins journeying with longing expectation of the wedding feast in the nuptial home of their bridegroom (Matthew 25:1-13).

The altar beneath this nuptial canopy is indeed where heaven and earth meet. The wedding feast reminds us that love demands mutuality. Though we go to receive Christ Our Bridegroom in the Eucharist, we need to remember that He also wishes to receive the intimate gift of our very self without reserve. Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen noted that too many go to communion only to “receive,” but not “give.” Archbishop Sheen asks, “Do we ever think of Christ wanting to receive Communion from us?”

Directly above the drapery in our new Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, as you face the altar, are the words of my episcopal motto in Latin: “Jesus, I Trust in You.” From the priest’s vantage standing behind the altar and looking up at the interior rim of the baldacchino are the word’s of Cardinal Justin Rigali’s episcopal motto in Latin: “The Word Became Flesh.” Other passages of Scripture are found around the base of the baldacchino that help us to reflect more deeply upon the mystery of the Eucharist that we are to receive.

Particularly when the altar is incensed during Mass and its smoke cascades upwards within the baldacchino, we are reminded of another beautiful image of God’s presence from the Old Testament.

During the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites were led by a column of cloud by day and a fiery cloud by night “in all the stages of their journey” (Exodus 40:38) to the Promised Land. And as the cloud of God’s presence filled the temple when it was dedicated (Exodus 40:34; 1 Kings 8:10), so should the sacred space of our heart be filled.

Because of sin and vice, our inner being can sometimes resemble the ruins of a desecrated temple not unlike that described of Jerusalem after giving itself over to the enemy to plunder: Her temple has become like a man disgraced. … All her adornment has been taken away. From being free, she has become a slave. We see our sanctuary and our beauty and our glory laid waste, and the Gentiles have defiled them!

The sacrament of reconciliation should be frequented so the above can’t be said of our temple of God. With God’s grace then, and with the help of all His saints and your guardian angel, may your heart’s temple truly be God’s cathedral, where His presence dwells.

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