This past summer, Carol and I had the privilege of a lifetime traveling to Germany for two weeks and England for one week. We had a wonderful time together and experienced so many things. We love watching people and history and culture and customs and countryside and castles and so much more. And then there were the cathedrals. Ohhhhh the cathedrals. We visited cathedrals in Wittenburg, Meisen, Trier, Berlin, Nuremburg, London, Cambridge and Ely. We saw many more from a distance that we simply didn’t have enough time to explore. There are hundreds and hundreds of them and I couldn’t help but make a few observations.
The cathedrals of Europe are simply awe-inspiring. Life in Medieval Europe was hard and life expectancy was short. To walk into a cathedral to worship must have been a welcomed and much anticipated break from the monotonous struggle of daily life. Cathedrals were designed to be “other worldly”. One tour guide stated that for many “worship in a cathedral was, on this earth, as close to heaven as they could get.” The architecture, the art, the expanse and high ceilings, the colorful stain-glass windows, the singing – everything – was set to point to God.
The cathedrals tell the story of salvation. For an illiterate society, the stories told by the stained-glass windows is amazing. In many cases, the story of salvation starts in the windows in the back and on the left side of the church. They then through the Bible to the front of the church. The stained-glass stories then continue across the front to the right side of the sanctuary and work all the way back to the back again. Amongst other things, the glass illustrates creation, Adam & Eve’s fall, the stories of the Old Testament leading to Christ’s birth, His miracles and ministry, the Passion of Holy Week, Crucifixion, Resurrection and sitting on the throne of Heaven.
Not all, but many of the cathedrals are mausoleums! When we walked through the Cathedrals, we realized that we were walking on the tombs of saints literally buried beneath our feet. Huge slabs of flooring had images and names of rulers and bishops and saints buried on the spot. They were in the walls, the floors, underground catacombs and, of course, just outside the building in the church grounds.
For the most part, the cathedrals are empty and deteriorating. Increasingly, the cost of maintaining cathedrals is a huge financial burden to society and government. Many cathedrals are crumbling in disrepair. Others are being converted into mosques. Some are used for museums, concerts and tours. Few are used primarily for their intended purpose.
I returned home with mixed feelings of inspiration and deep sadness. The magnificence of these structures testifies to the love of a people for their God. Much of the work, artistry and craftsmanship was donated in their construction. Even the most callous non-believer surely must hold some degree of admiration and respect for a people so committed to their Lord. But I was also filled with such sadness. In Luke 19:40, the Pharisees demanded that Jesus rebuke his disciples for worshipping and praising Jesus as He approached Jerusalem. “I tell you, he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” The stones of the cathedrals are crying out because the disciples of Christ are not.
In 1974, my wife, Carol, visited England where she first experienced the glory and grandeur of a cathedral. Amidst all of that, there was a cavernous emptiness that troubled her heart and soul. They were occupied by orchestras, choirs and tourists. But vibrant worship by true believers was no-where to be found. She returned to the States shaken by the experience and began to examine her own life. As she shares her testimony, she felt that spiritually, her life was like a cathedral, built for the glory of God, but an empty mausoleum, except for the dry bones inside. For Carol, it was the beginning of a spiritual awakening that was life-changing to this day.
The psalmist wrote, “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain.” Psalm 127:1.
I want to conclude by saying that the beauty and magnificence of Central Baptist Church is certainly not our building!! It is the Body of Christ, the presence of God amongst us; the salvation, mercy and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ; the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives; and it is you and me. I want to live in a Lord-Built House. I came home this summer and fall rejoicing that here at Central, there is no reason for the stones to cry out.