On the wall behind the altar, where I am accustomed to finding a crucifix on which to focus, hangs an enormous clock, reminiscent of ones I remember from elementary school classrooms years ago. It hums as it tirelessly ticks its way through the Mass.
When we stand for the Gospel, metal folding chairs scrape against the wooden floors and echo through the open space. Baby Daniel squirms in my arms and points to the basketball hoop hanging above Father’s head.
“Ba-ball!” he squeals with excitement.
This is our parish, where we have Mass in the gymnasium.
Our parish church was vandalized last month. In the late afternoon, someone entered the open, empty church and used votive candles to set fire to the altar linens, the wooden altar that holds the tabernacle, and the floor in the center aisle. Candles and a crucifix were strewn across the floor, and pages were ripped from the missals.
All things considered, the damage was rather minimal. The church certainly wasn’t burned down, and the Blessed Sacrament remained untouched. When Dan called from work to tell me about it, I looked up the story online and read him the news report from a local paper. I thought that I understood and accepted this horrible story for what it was.
But I wasn’t prepared for the photo.
I wasn’t prepared to see my spiritual home desecrated. I wasn’t ready to take in the sight of a burned altar and broken candles in the place where my babies have been baptized, where my children have received their First Communions, and where we attend Mass together as a family. I wasn’t prepared to see a place that is so holy and so real to me defiled by another human being.
I felt like that altar. Gutted. Violated. Wounded. Burned.
I thought of Christ, who was there, present in the tabernacle, when the church was attacked. He alone knew the face of the person who brought hatred to this holy place, who brought rage to this place of grace and love.
Christ knows who did this. And yet He loves. He forgives. Always, He does.
Repairing smoke damage from the fire — re-painting ceilings, re-finishing woodwork, and replacing carpet — has required that our church remain closed for several weeks so far.
When I attend Mass in our new and distracting location, I look around the gym and find familiar faces I am used to seeing at church. Seeing them here, though, under fluorescent lights beside the bleachers, feels like when I bump into the mailman at the gas station and have trouble placing his face at first. These people are out of their element. We all are.
But my discomfort nudges me gently toward a broader understanding of Christian community. Our Church is supposed to extend beyond the walls of any building. Our Church is not made up of bricks, mortar, carpets, and pews; but of the hearts, minds, bodies, and souls of the people who gather together to worship God.
And at its head is Christ, who once walked through walls and who continues to transcend our physical surroundings. The same Christ comes to us in the Eucharist — in breathtaking cathedrals, in war-torn deserts, in humble huts in Haiti . . . and in outdated gymnasiums where we sing hymns a capella and our voices bounce and echo from the concrete walls.
Christ comes to us where we are. The same Christ who walked the earth, who healed the sick, who bled on the cross, and who rose from the dead is truly present here. Yes, here. He fills us where we are lacking. He strengthens us where we are weak. He heals us where we are broken and burned.
I will always prefer beautiful, pillared churches with marble floors and awe-inspiring architecture. But when I receive Communion in the dusty gym, I know that Church is not a place.
No walls can contain our God. He is right here, right now, with us. Amen and Alleluia!