Jesus Christ is the Cornerstone. This is one of his names.
Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians that we are the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and the prophets and that Christ Jesus himself is the cornerstone (Eph 2:19-20). This is the corner foundation stone – the foundation stone placed at the extreme corner where two walls of a structure meet – the stone that both supports and unites both walls. This is an important piece. Were it to crumble, the whole structure would be compromised and would likely collapse.
It is clear that Jesus Christ is the foundation upon which the house of God is built and that if we try to build our churches, our families, or our lives on any other stone, they will be compromised and will likely collapse. Any other stone is too weak to support such weight and it will crumble.
And yet we often seek to do just that. We make central to our lives concerns that really are secondary. Instead of eating to live, we live to eat. We pursue not almighty God so much as the almighty dollar. We care more for the crumbling stones of our church buildings than for the living stones which comprise the true Church.
Jesus Christ is the stone that matters. Sometimes we care too much for church buildings and not enough for the body of Christ, which is his people. The body of Christ is risen from the dead and ascended to the right hand of the Father. This is the everlasting temple in which we worship God: the temple of his body. We are members of his body and living stone of his temple. If Christ lives in us, we are his holy place more so than this church building, even more so than Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, yes, even more so than the Church of the Anastasis in Jerusalem, which houses both Golgotha and the tomb of Christ and which, for the first time since 1349 during the Black Death, was closed for services this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The temples of our bodies, I tell you, were not closed.
St. Gregory of Nyssa writes, “Change of place does not effect any drawing nearer unto God, but wherever you may be, God will come to you, if the chambers of your soul be found of such a sort that He can dwell in you and walk in you. But if you keep your inner man full of wicked thoughts, even if you were on Golgotha, even if you were on the Mount of Olives, even if you stood on the memorial-rock of the Resurrection, you will be as far away from receiving Christ into yourself, as one who has not even begun to confess Him.”
Let us remember what our patron, St. Stephen clearly said, “Solomon built a house for him, but the Most High does not dwell in houses made with hands” (Acts 7:47-48). Jesus said of the temple buildings, “There will not be left one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down” (Matt 24:2). The same is likely true of this building in which we now worship. Let’s not forget that. It is Christ whom we worship here who is the eternal stone, not this brick and mortar. He is who matters. All this is passing away.
Jesus is the cornerstone upon which we would build if we were wise. Though he is often rejected by worldly builders, he is the only one who can really hold it all together. If we’ve been building our lives on other things: on money, on comfort, on our own pride, let’s go ahead and let the shanties we’ve assembled collapse. Just let it go. And start rebuilding on Christ an edifice that will stand for ages.
Today Jesus shows us that the scripture is speaking of him when it says, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the work of the Lord, a marvel in our eyes.” We chant this together with other verses from Psalm 117 every Sunday morning at Matins. If we pray the whole divine office, we chant this every single morning, except on days of alleluia. This is clearly an important image for us, which the Church presents to us almost every day for our consideration and meditation.
This verse is also quoted five times in the New Testament – by Jesus himself in all three synoptic gospels, by Peter when filled with the Holy Spirit in Acts, and again in 1 Peter (Acts 4:8,11; 1 Pet 2:7). This has been a central piece of apostolic preaching from the very beginning.
The phrase repeatedly quoted by the apostles is an exact quote from the Septuagint – that’s the purportedly inspired Greek translation of the Old Testament that was used by the apostles, by the Jews of Jesus’ time and place, and by the early Church. The phrase is actually a little different from that which appears in Ephesians and may be more literally rendered, “the head of the corner.”
These terms can refer to the cornerstone as I’ve described, but they can also refer to the keystone or the capstone of an arch. This is the stone that supports the arch from above – the last stone placed while building the arch – the stone that holds the whole thing together. If you’ve got some building blocks of the right shape, it’s fun to build an arch with them with your children or grandchildren. And it’s a good physics lesson. You can build the arch and see how strong it is – but then pull out the keystone and watch the whole thing collapse.
This sense of the term may make more sense with the timing of the verse: “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” If the builders rejected a stone and started building, but then returned to it when they needed it, it may make sense that this would be the keystone of an arch, which is the last stone placed when building an arch, rather than the cornerstone of two walls, which may be the first stone one would lay.
I think the multivalence of this image is actually a good thing. Jesus is both our cornerstone and our keystone, I would suggest. He is both the one who supports us and also the one who unites us. He is both the first stone upon which we build and the last stone which completes us. He is the beginning and the end – the alpha and the omega.
Also, if we rejected him when we began building our lives, or at any point along the way, if our priorities have gotten out of whack, it’s not too late to return to him and place him as the keystone which holds our lives together.