Thursday, May 2, 2019

God and the Cathedral

A view of the ceiling and top of an altar at St. Peter's in the Vatican.
Through my travels, I’ve had opportunities to visit many beautiful centers of worship. Most recently my wife and I were in Rome, where we toured the Vatican, including St. Peter's cathedral and the Sistine Chapel. While in Venice we saw St. Mark’s, another architectural marvel, and in Assisi, the grand church where St. Francis is reported to have been buried.

St. Patrick's Cathedral in Midtown Manhattan.
During a trip to New York City a few years ago, we visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral, one of the most beautiful churches in the United States. While in Savannah, Ga., we toured Christ Church, a comparatively modest chapel built through the efforts of the Wesley brothers, John and Charles. But even in its wood-hewn simplicity, the stain-glassed interior spoke volumes about devotion to Jesus.

And when I toured parts of Hungary, Czech Republic and Germany more than 20 years ago, numerous churches caught my eyes, including one in Dresden that endured much damage during World War II, being rebuilt only after a half-century of Communist rule in East Germany. The centuries-old artwork and craftsmanship in each of these churches serve as testaments to the artisans’ faith in the God of the Bible.

Reports of the fire that destroyed parts of the iconic cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, France turned my thoughts to the wondrous edifices I’ve seen. Having never been to “the city of lights,” I’ve not viewed the famed cathedral firsthand, but can imagine the creative expressions of faith it has contained through its history. For countless thousands who have toured it, as well as Parisians who have walked in its shadow, the inferno that claimed the cathedral’s roof, spire and some of its contents was tragic. 

Christ Church chapel outside
near Savannah, Ga.
Then I began to wonder what God thought about it. Not to diminish the artistry that was destroyed, but I suspect the Lord wasn’t nearly as upset as were many connoisseurs of history and art.

We find clues in the Old Testament. After King David of Israel stated his desire to build a temple for God, the Lord responded through the prophet Nathan: 
“… Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in? I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought the Israelites up out of Egypt to this day…. Wherever I have moved with all the Israelites, did I ever say to any of their rulers whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, 'Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’”(2 Samuel 7:1-7).

Preparing to commence with construction of the temple, using gold and silver, bronze and iron, cedar and other materials collected by his father, King Solomon announced,“The temple I am going to build will be great, because our God is greater than all other gods. But who is able to build a temple for him, since the heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain him? Who then am I to build a temple for him, except as a place to burn sacrifices before him?” (2 Chronicles 2:5-6).

Then, upon completion of the temple Solomon conceded, “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!... May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day, this place of which you said, ‘My Name shall be there’…” (1 Kings 8:27-29).

Despite its grandeur, this lavish focal point for the Israelites’ worship was eventually destroyed by enemy armies. All that remains are the detailed biblical descriptions of how it was constructed and what it looked like. God, being all-powerful, could have preserved the temple. However, in the New Testament we discover He had a very different plan.

The historic church
at Assisi, Italy.
Rather than bricks and mortar, or even the finest metals and most exquisite pieces of art, the Lord prefers a human habitation. As the apostle Paul wrote to believers in Corinth, “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16).

Paul also wrote, Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own” (1 Corinthians 6:19). The apostle Peter reinforced this when he stated, “You also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5).

So reflecting on the fire that recently claimed portions of the historic cathedral in Paris, it’s no doubt a loss in terms of the blood, sweat and tears of the artists and workers who gave so much of their lives to its creation. But based on the passages above, God is much more concerned about the cathedrals – the temples – He is building and refining within each of us. 

It's a reminder that when we “go to church,” we as “temples of God” are congregating for collective worship and praise. And when we depart, we “temples” return to our homes, to work, to school, and wherever we go. By combining our unique talents, gifts and expertise, we can form a Church that pales the Notre Dame cathedral, or any religious edifice, by comparison.

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