The Living Rite column explores what you will see, hear, taste, touch or smell while at church this weekend.
The second reading this week deals with “the new Jerusalem,” which is described as being so glorious that it “gleamed with the splendor of God.” Later in the same chapter of Revelation, the heavenly city is described as having 12 rows of foundation stones — each of them made of gemstones. The stones are listed as jasper, sapphire, chalcedony, emerald, sardonyx, carnelian, chrysolite, beryl, topaz, chrysoprase, hyacinth (jacinth) and amethyst (Rev 21:19-20).
In this Sunday’s reading, though, we only hear about jasper — which we now know as a reddish-brown quartz. Today, jasper is a semiprecious stone, but biblical scholars believe that the “jasper” of the Bible was probably a form of diamond, certainly a precious stone.
In liturgical use, precious and semiprecious stones often adorned valuable objects. For example, chalices — often made of gold or at least gilded — are sometimes studded with precious stones, such as rubies. These gems remind us that the chalice holds something even more precious: the Blood of Christ.
Some religious artwork also has jewels. Some statues of Mary and Jesus are given gold or silver crowns that may also contain precious stones. If you have any Eastern-style icons in your parish, you may find them, framed with silver (called a “riza” or “okald”) and glowing with gemstones. These are meant to symbolize crowns and represent the glory of God surrounding the icon.
The twelve stones spoken of in Revelation as the foundation of the New Jerusalem also refer to the Twelve Apostles — who are certainly more precious than gems. Jasper is most often associated with St. Peter, whom Jesus called “the rock.” Think of gemstones.
Which ones would you assign to the apostles?
While it may seem extravagant to use gems, gold and silver in church, we need to remember that their use has both a symbolic meaning — reminding us of the glory of God — as well as a devotional meaning: Throughout the ages, people have always offered their best gifts to the most important people in their lives.
For Christians, God and the saints are more precious than gold and jewels. So we honor them with our best jewels and artwork. At one time, people saved their best clothes and, even jewelry, to wear to Mass on Sunday. It was a special part of their own offering of praise to God.
Kasten is an associate editor of The Compass and the author of multiple books.