Often the sentiment is expressed, that Justinian's great edifice, the church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople—Istanbul—should be returned to its original purpose. It was not erected to be a museum, nor a mosque—though it has been the inspiration to mosque-builders over the centuries. It was built to be a temple of the Lord, the Holy Triad, Father, Son and Spirit. Miracles used to occur within these ancient walls.
I can understand why many hope for the restoration of the great church to Christian use. We recall time-hallowed traditions like the story of the priests disappearing into the walls of the edifice when the Turks broke in to take it during their conquest of Byzantium, as well as the legend that they will reemerge when the church is restored. I've heard this story, and once upon a time I too was charmed by it.
Though casting a warm glow, quite honestly, the story is nonsense. This is not how God works. If priests were slaughtered during the taking of the church, they will emerge from their graves with all the rest of the blessed dead at the end of the world. Perhaps on that Day the great church will be restored—except we won't need it then, because scripture says, 'I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple' (Revelation 21:22).
I don't believe in the priority of Christian 'real estate.' I know it's great to have big, beautiful church buildings, 'built to the glory of God,' as emperor Justinian intended Hagia Sophia to be, but such things are not what is important in Christianity. In fact, vast real estate holdings should be an embarrassment to the Church, unless we are in the business of property management.
The rationale for wanting the great church back is understandable. It is an historic landmark, and many momentous events happened there, even holy, even miraculous events. But this whole world has been host to great events and miraculous happenings, and yet it too will one day disappear and be forgotten. 'The world of the past is gone' (Revelation 21:4).
And if Hagia Sophia were given back to the Orthodox patriarchate of Constantinople, what then? What will they do with it? Will it be filled with hundreds and even thousands of people in joyous and lengthy worship? Where would they come from? Almost all the Greek Orthodox are gone from the City.
The great church is what it is only when it is the main temple of the Orthodox Christian Empire, the godly jewel set in the crown of Constantinople, the City of New Rome. As it is, Istanbul is a large, sprawling and dirty city, ruinous at worst, secular and unspiritual at best. And this is where the Ecumenical Patriarch should reside? In my humble opinion, not.
Following Jesus, let him either submit to the cross and martyrdom in a final appeal to the Turkish people to accept their Savior—for they would certainly kill him—or let him be realistic, and follow Jesus where He is walking today. That might make him patriarch of no city at all, except the City of God, which exists everywhere, anywhere there are faithful people of God. Like Moses, journeying through the wilderness with his pilgrim people, the Ecumenical Patriarch will have demonstrated what 'ecumenical' signifies.
I am not a romantic when it comes to Christian heritage. I have seen and experienced too much to believe that the Church can be entrusted with riches and power. The psalmist says—and you must know this is one of my favorite verses—'man in his prosperity forfeits intelligence. He is one with the cattle doomed to slaughter' (Psalm 49:20). It is the suffering Church that has the hope of following Jesus, and the only Church among whom real miracles can be expected.
Not the showy and ludicrous miracles of priests disappearing into church walls, or statues weeping tears of saltwater or blood, or ikons or bodies of saints gushing forth fragrant myrrh. Yes, such things do, in fact, happen, but to what purpose? That the great church of Hagia Sophia will one day be handed over by the Turks to his all-holiness Bartholomaios or one of his successors would be just such a miracle. Perhaps it will be the bride price of Turkey being allowed to join the European Union.
In the end, will it really bring the joy and the blessing people expect? And will those vanished priests come tumbling out of the walls fully vested and ready to serve the holy mysteries? If they did, they might be in for a surprise.
I hope I haven't upset you by writing down these contrary thoughts, but I am very tender right now, and sensitive to the intrusion of fantasy into my world, whether it is romantic, religious, or whatever. I actually am and can be a romantic person, but for me romance has more to do with a merciful appreciation of all things beautiful trying to exist in a world made ugly by prevailing sin.
As usual, I am going to keep harping on the idea that we must 'do what we see Jesus doing in the scriptures,' down to His very thinking where it is apparent, but at least what is clear from His words and his actions. When we try to do this, we begin to notice gradually how much of our Christian and religious ideology seems to have nothing in common at all with Him.
That, by itself, is a very scary thought—or it would be, if we didn't already know how merciful God is. You should know me well enough to know that I am not here saying the Church is wrong about anything, nor will I ever be found opposing her 'to her face.' It isn't that the Church is wrong. It's just that often the Church stops too soon. But like myself, with whom I am infinitely patient, the Church deserves our patience and our hope, that sooner or later, she will emerge fully awake and ready to present herself to her Lord.