THE CHURCH IS “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone,” according to the teaching of St. Paul (Ephesians 2:20). What seems wrong with his image?
In our experience a cornerstone is an ornamental piece, inscribed with the name of the building, the date of construction, perhaps the names of those responsible for it. A cornerstone may have images carved on it or adhering to it. It may have holy relics or other artifacts encased within it. It may be beautiful, but it is strictly ornamental. If that is what St. Paul is implying, then Christ is an ornament of the Church rather than the reason for its existence.
In classical architecture, however, the term we translate as “cornerstone” had a very different meaning. A cornerstone (or foundation stone) was the first stone set in the construction of a masonry foundation. It might not even be visible above ground, but it was all-important to the construction of the building. All other stones in the foundation would be set in reference to this stone, determining the position of the entire structure.
This type of cornerstone gives meaning to St. Paul’s image. The building is set upon the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. But the foundation is set upon the very basis of the entire structure, the foundation stone or corner stone, which is Christ.
Who Are the Apostles and the Prophets?
Different commentators have identified these figures in different ways. While all agree that the apostles are, first of all, Peter and Paul with the rest of the Twelve, the Evangelists and the seventy disciples who first preached the resurrection to the world. It is their message – whether oral or written (the New Testament) – on which the community of believers rests.
Some have said that the “prophets” refers to the great persons and events of the Old Testament in which we find the prophecies of the coming Messiah. Others have identified the prophets with those charismatic figures of the Church who have manifested the continuing presence of Christ in His Church by the gifts of the Spirit which they have received.
In either case, the image is true: the Church rests upon the witness of those who have known the mystery of God’s plan in the Old Testament, the New Testament and the life of the Church – all of which rest upon the foundation stone, Jesus Christ.
A Stone Rejected
The Lord Himself used the image of the cornerstone when alluding to His own role in the plan of God. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all report that on the eve of His passion Jesus quoted Psalm 117:22-23(LXX) – “Have you never read in the Scriptures,” He asked, “‘The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This was the LORD’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes’” (Matthew 21:42). From its earliest days the Church saw this psalm verse as a prophecy of Christ – He is the Stone rejected by the builders (the leaders of Israel) whom God chose to be the very foundation of His new people, the Church.
Builders would reject a stone for several reasons: it was misshapen, it was flawed, or it was just too unattractive for the work at hnd. This image of the rejected stone calls to mind a similar image in the prophecy of Isaiah which we have come to describe as the Suffering Servant: “…there were many who were appalled at him – his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness” (Isaiah 52:14). “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away. yet who of his generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:7-9).
The rejected stone would be restored; his suffering was not the last word. Isaiah tells us: “See, my servant will prosper; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted” (Isaiah 52:13. Both Isaiah’s prophecy and the psalm’s image of the chief cornerstone, rejected and exalted would be proclaimed by the first Christians as indicators of Christ’s voluntary passion and resurrection.
The Foundation Stone in Jerusalem
Visitors to Jerusalem cannot but be impressed by the Dome of the Rock, an elaborately tiled Islamic shrine at the heart of the Old City. It is as its name suggests a dome erected over a rock, in this case what is believed to be the foundation stone of the ancient Jewish temple of Jerusalem. This stone is considered the holiest site in Judaism, the spiritual junction of Heaven and Earth. Jews traditionally face it while praying, in the belief that the Holy of Holies in the Temple was built over this rock. After the Islamic conquest in the 7th century AD, the conquerors built the dome over this shrine.
Curiously enough, the dome erected over this rock is inscribed to Jesus – proclaiming Him as God’s “prophet and servant, Jesus the Son of Mary.” Thus the site believed by Jews to be the foundation stone of the temple is dedicated – by Muslims – to Christ, the living stone, whose sacrifice offered in Jerusalem is the eternal oblation which includes and surpasses all the oblations of the Old Testament.
Therefore, laying aside all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all evil speaking, as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word that you may grow thereby, if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is gracious.
Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. Therefore it is also contained in the Scripture, “Behold, I lay in Zion a chief cornerstone, elect, precious; and he who believes on Him will by no means be put to shame.” (Isaiah 28:16) Therefore, to you who believe, He is precious; but to those who are disobedient, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone,” and “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense”3m> (Isaiah 8:14). They stumble, being disobedient to the word, to which they also were appointed.
But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light: you who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy (1 Peter 2:1-10).