By Fr. Glenn Jones
You may have seen the stories of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul—formerly the cathedral of the Orthodox faith built under Emperor Justinian I in the early 500s in the former Constantinople—being converted from the museum that it has been for the last several decades back into a mosque, which it was for several hundred years prior to that. An absolute jewel of architectural beauty, it has “changed hands” a number of times over the centuries—Orthodox cathedral to Catholic cathedral in the Crusades, back to Orthodox cathedral, then to mosque during the Ottoman conquest, to museum in the 1930s, and now back to mosque. Such huge and magnificent edifices—like the Roman colosseum and the pyramids—are mute observers of the passage of time and movements of civilizations, watching generations and empires brighten and fade as we might experience the seasons.
Hagia Sophia is transliterated Greek, rendered “Holy Wisdom”, meaning perhaps more familiarly to western Christians as the Logos, or Word—Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity of persons of the one God of Christianity … inspired by St. John’s Gospel in part: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.” (John 1:1, 14) In fact, some of the most beautiful remaining mosaics in Hagia Sophia are those depicting Jesus. Those mosaics and other artistic renderings had formerly been plastered over during its previous time as a mosque; we’ll see what happens now.
As one might imagine, there is mourning in some Christian circles—especially Orthodox, understandably—about the former cathedral once again being used for non-Christian worship. We Catholics might best relate if we imagine the same thing happening to the Vatican, which would be a glaring loss to an ancient spiritual focal point of our own faith.
And yet … Christians realize that faith is not bound to any building or place, but rather to the community of believers. We certainly treasure our churches as historic assembly areas and for the facilitation of liturgical worship, but as Jesus assures us so comfortingly: “…where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew18:20) The ancient Israelites believed that the “mercy seat” of God—essentially the cover of the Ark of the Covenant—was where God “dwelt” on earth; but by Jesus’ own assurance above, Christians know that He dwells wherever we are…wherever we might gather—just as did the early Christians in the catacombs and in the homes of believers. Yes, believers have sought to honor God through the construction and dedication of magnificent churches throughout the millennia, but in the end—like the Israelites who lost the Temple—we know that He is in every time and place.
For Christians, the Word IS Holy Wisdom, not just a building … no matter how magnificent. And our own personal “little ‘w’” wisdom is manifest at how closely we conform ourselves to Holy Wisdom. As Jesus admonishes in His parable: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you? Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them … is like a man building a house, who dug deep, and laid the foundation upon rock; and when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house, and could not shake it, because it had been well built. But he who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation; against which the stream broke, and immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great.” (Luke 6:46-1)
What is a sign of our devotion … our belief … our wisdom? To follow Him with whole heart.
As the feast of St. James, son of Zebedee, was the other day, I could not help but muse on James’ own wisdom. He was minding his own business—literally—fishing with his father and brother John, when called by Jesus to follow Him to who-knows-where, who-knows-what. Nonetheless he dropped his nets, and with John and their partner-brothers Simon and Andrew, took off for not only a three-ish year adventure, but for the rest of their earthly lives in following the Logos—James’ own life cut short when he became the first apostle to give his life for Christ. For James and the others knew that Jesus was with them wherever they gathered.
All Christians know this, of course—even the Orthodox, who feel the loss of the church of Hagia Sophia most keenly. And they know that the inexorable march of time will see the mosaics fade, the bricks crumble, the structure fall regardless—whether it be by war, earthquake, or the elements. The actual Hagia Sophia—the Logos—is the only essential Temple … raised up, not over centuries with marble, brick and mortar, but rather in only three days in that which we call the Resurrection … so paradoxically after its destruction upon the cross just a few days before. Having definitively defeated death, His is the true Temple indestructible … for all people … and which will never—can never—crumble.
He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High…and of his kingdom there will be no end. (Luke 1:32-33)
Happy is the man who finds wisdom, and the man who gets understanding,
for the gain from it is better than gain from silver and its profit better than gold.
She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her.
Rev. Glenn Jones is the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and former pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Los Alamos.