Ralph Adams Cram, John LaFarge, and Richard Upjohn: these are not what you would call household names, but their work you may recognize. Cram and Upjohn were both architects and LaFarge was an artist.
Cram’s work includes All Saints Chapel at Sewanee, The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, and several of the buildings at Princeton University. Upjohn was the architect of Trinity Church in New York and, for those of you who have visited Nashotah House, St. John Chrysostom in Delafield, Wisconsin, along with many other church buildings. LaFarge is noted for his work with Stained glass windows.
We celebrate these three (and I think we should add one more to the list: R. R. Wright who was the architect of St. Matthew’s) because of their contributions to our houses of worship. Frank Lloyd Wright said, “A doctor can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines.” For these architects and artist, no vines were needed.
The architectural phrase, “form follows function,” is true. A building is most often designed to efficiently serve a particular need. That is true for the church as well, but the church is not designed to build material goods or serve as an office complex. A church is designed to draw you toward the transcendent. To help you enter into the presence of God. So with its high ceilings, stained glass, iconography, altars, and all the other accoutrements, the church building serves as a sanctuary in the midst of a chaotic world designed to draw us nearer to our God.
Those that we celebrate today, created some of our most notable sanctuaries. But even they, standing before their most glorious works, would understand King Solomon’s words that we read. It was at the dedication at the Temple he had built that Solomon prayed, “But will God indeed reside with mortals on earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, how much less this house that I have built!”
Our sanctuaries are holy places of refuge in this world, but they cannot contain our God. Stephen, the first deacon and martyr declared, just before he was stoned to death, “The Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands; as the prophet says,
‘Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.’”
Our grandest cathedrals cannot house God and even an infinite universe is too small for his greatness, but what is so amazing is that the body of a believer can. You are his temple, so wrote St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.”
The great Anglican poet, George Herbert, understood this and wrote of the altar of God that resides within the temple of us all: the heart.
A broken Altar, Lord, thy servant rears,
Made of a heart, and cemented with tears,
Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;
No workmans tool hath touch’d the same.
A Heart alone
Is such a stone,
As nothing but
Thy pow’r doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame,
To praise thy name.
That if I chance to hold my peace,
These stones to praise thee may not cease.
O let thy blessed Sacrifice be mine
And sanctifie this Altar to be thine.
We celebrate those who build our houses of worship, and along with them, we celebrate the One who builds our bodies into His most Holy Temple.