Feb 15, 2002

A City Set on a Hill

Online Edition – Vol. VII, No. 10: February 2002

A City Set on a Hill

by Michael S. Rose

During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught his followers that they were to be the light of the world. "A city set on a hill cannot be hid", He said, just as men do not "light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house" (see Matt 5:14). In terms of churches, the words of Christ serve as an instructive metaphor: our churches need to show Christ and His Church present and active in a particular locale. That is why one historic term for the church building is "city on a hill". This refers not only to the preferred location of our churches on high places (just as Solomon’s Temple was built on Mount Moriah, the highest point in Jerusalem), with the sense of being a fortified, protected sanctuary, but also less literally as occupying a place of prominence in the community.

To this day, when new churches are built, the siting where a building is situated in the landscape, whether in the city, town, or country is of critical importance. The church building should not be hidden ("a city on a hill cannot be hid") because hidden signs are bad signs. Rather, the church should be integrated into the neighborhood or landscape in a way that its siting reminds us of the building’s importance and purpose, whether built on the heights or making itself a lamp set on a stand by some other means.

The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence amply demonstrates how a church can dominate the landscape without necessarily being built on higher ground. In fact, the Duomo of Florence, through its sheer height and the immensity of its mass, gives the illusion that the building itself is a city set on a hill. It is by far the most distinctive feature of the Florentine skyline, rising above all other structures. Its incredible dome is visible throughout the historic Italian city.

On the other hand, a very literal example of a church as "city on a hill" is the Benedictine Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel in France (begun in 1017). The buildings of the monastery are amassed around a cone-shaped islet of granite that defiantly juts out of the waters of the Atlantic, rising to some 300 feet. It is here at its summit that the great abbey church sits, with Saint Michael the Archangel — wings outspread and sword uplifted — perched atop the tower that crowns the great Gothic structure. Below, with its ramparts and guard towers constructed during the Hundred Years War, is the village that grew up in the shadow of its walls.

In both cases, never has there been any doubt that the church was the most important structure in its environment. At least physically speaking, the pilgrim to Florence or Mont Saint-Michel, assuming he recognizes the most basic forms of Christian architecture, would easily be led to believe that Christ is, was, and will be "present and active" in those places.

Of course, towering European cathedrals and fortified medieval monasteries easily lend themselves to the task of serving as "city on a hill", but modest churches can accomplish the same. In places such as the Greek islands, the siting of relatively small parish churches at the highest point (the acropolis, literally meaning "highest city") has long made known Christ’s importance and influence in the lives of those who dwelt in the shadows of their cross-tipped domes. Some situations are dramatic, such as the church at Thera on the island of Santorini, where the white-washed houses built onto the face of the cliffs and spreading along their rims seem to risk toppling into the Aegean, nine hundred feet below.

Others are admittedly less dramatic, yet because they are well-placed nonetheless just as effective. Two excellent examples: Our Lady "Korfiotissa" atop the gentle hillside of Plaka on the island of Milos, and the Church of Saints Cosmas and Damien, located above the harbor of Ios’s capital city of Ormos, where fishing-boats and yachts bob at anchor.

Even many average parish churches of North America are truly "cities on a hill". Immaculata Church in Cincinnati, accessed by some 200 feet of steps, towers above the chic residences, shops, and cafés of Mount Adams below. Those arriving in the city over the bridge from Kentucky cannot help but notice the modest graystone building surmounted by Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, whose welcoming gaze is fixed across the river on the bluegrass hills beyond, her arms outstretched. A neighboring parish below in the flat valley of Cincinnati is home to Old Saint Mary’s, the oldest standing house of worship in the city. Although the church structure itself doesn’t rise much above the surrounding tenements and row houses, its bell tower steeple surmounted by a gilded cross provides a beacon visible from a great distance, as if two strong arms are holding the Holy Cross high above the city, triumphantly declaring that Christ is victor, despite whatever the neighborhood might claim to the contrary.

Thus, with the aid of bell towers, spires, and domes, even in the flattest of landscapes the church can serve as a "city on a hill". A trek through rural Ohio’s Mercer County, for instance, will lead the pilgrim through what has come to be known as "the land of the cross-tipped churches". The rural landscape here is marked by a continuous skyline of Catholic churches large traditional structures with soaring towers between 150 and 200 feet high, standing out in the midst of cornfields. Towns with names such as Saint Peter, Saint Joseph, Saint Henry, Saint Sebastian, Saint Rose, Saint Anthony, Saint Wendelin, and Saint Patrick, each named after the parish church, attest to the Christ-centered heritage of this bucolic region, settled more than a century ago by German-speaking Swiss and Bavarian Catholics. On a clear day, standing on the steps of one church, the pilgrim can look out east or west to see the cross-tipped spire of the neighboring parish churches. The same can be said of the farmer in his field or the boys playing ball in the sandlot.

A quick look up at the nearest steeple orients and reassures that Christ is near in His house of God.

Michael S. Rose, Cincinnati, is the author of Ugly as Sin, (2001, Sophia Institute Press, Box 5284, Manchester, New Hampshire 03108.)

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Michael S. Rose