“Christ is our cornerstone,
On Him alone we build.”
Hymnal: Worship Book #43
“A cornerstone is a largely ornamental architectural feature.” -Encyc. Brit. (unknown ed.)
In celebration of our church’s one-hundredeth anniversary, the pastor had carefully chiseled away the crumbling mortar from around the stone. As people of the community, former and current church members watched, he carefully slid the stone onto the stand prepared for it. A small metal box was removed from a recess in the stone. From it came a few coins, a decaying newspaper and a moldy Bible. Later, the first cornerstone was replaced with a new, hermetically sealed container with new ingredients in the recess in the stone. In the weeks between the removal of the stone and its replacement, the church building, minus the cornerstone, stood, and the church (people) continued normal activities. The still functioning, cornerstone-less building remained in my memory.
Singing “Christ is our cornerstone” reminded me of the earlier experience. Having recently studied the scripture referring to Christ as the capstone, I wondered how the capstone and cornerstone were related. While beginning some research on this topic, I asked several people what the image suggested to them. “Christ is the foundation, something strong and firm.” one offered. Later she agreed that she didn’t distinguish between Christ the foundation stone, and the corner foundation stone . A song leader offered that “cornerstone” suggested a rock with it’s strength and solidity*. Another said that the cornerstone was the one by which the foundation was set straight. After these comments, I still felt the dissonance of the song and dictionary definition. My research turned up some clarification.
In the modern era, most buildings do not have a functional cornerstone. I have not been able to find out when the load bearing function of the cornerstone ended. I did find some information about a commercial building in Chicago (early 20th century) that was thought to be the last commercial building with a load bearing foundation. I am still trying to find out when the “surveying” function of the cornerstones (plural) was no longer important.
During the time the Psalms were written, foundations were seldom laid with dressed or finished stone. Rough stones were used. For Solomon’s temple, however, dressed stones were used for the entire foundation I Kings 7:9-10 which reports that the stones used were eight and ten cubits (12 to 15 feet) and that they were all trimmed with a saw on the inner and outer surfaces. The first stone laid was carefully squared and finished to line up the rest of the foundation wall. The other corners had some of the same function, but the first was the “chief” cornerstone. The rest of the wall was laid up, often without mortar. Fresh cut stones would dry and settle together. Some of these foundations remain today, cut so precisely, a knife blade could not be stuck between the stones.
So this is what the Sovereign LORD says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation; the one who trusts will never be dismayed. Isaiah 28:16
Since uniform, ready-made stone was not used, some irregularities would result so that the last space to be filled required a stone not exactly the size of the others. Since this was the final stone a good fit would tie the wall together. A stone which previously had been set aside might be used because it was an exact fit. This was the capstone, the one that tied together the wall and fit exactly. Laying the last stone was a ceremonial occasion as
“What are you, O mighty mountain? Before Zerubbabel you will become level ground. Then he will bring out the capstone to shouts of `God bless it! God bless it!’ Zechariah 4:7
In the New Testament, Jesus is seen as both the chief cornerstone and the capstone.
For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone, 1 Peter 2:6, 7
If we believe our eyes and experience, we understand that in our day, a cornerstone is a decorative repository of items from the past history of a church or other institution. A closer look at the world of the Bible helps us see how the people of Jesus time used this image to move toward an understanding of him. I hope this helps.
Jesus is the first stone and the last, the “tested” stone, the one that determines that the rest of the building is well-build, solid, and will stand. He is the final stone, the one that just fits and holds the building together.
*The image of the cornerstone and stone or rock overlap. I have pursued these images in another blog, “On being chips off the old Rock.”