(Touring Germany’s Cathedrals)
Three million people and more cowered nervously at the base of the massive peaks and bulk rising out of the Sinai Desert. They were familiar with the intimidation of mountainous structures, particularly the oppression behind the massive royal tombs called pyramids that rose out of the sands of Egypt. In fact, their own guts, sweat and tears had slurried the mortar and hefted the bricks for those great monuments. But this natural mountainous land, separated from the waters on the third day of creation at the Maker’s command, was something else; what shook the children of Israel, gathered at Sinai’s hem, was more than just its size. There was Something very alive behind this one.
Egypt’s structures were vaults for the wealth, supplies and bejeweled sarcophagi of its well-preserved god-kings on their dread way through the land of the dead. Their priests practiced their dark arts deep inside columned temples overseen by gargantuan statues of animal-headed gods which neither moved, saw, nor spoke. But Mount Sinai quaked– it thundered, it smoked, and lightning issued from it– for the living One who had spoken it into existence had come down upon it and wanted to meet… with them.
This was the power, the voice, and presence of the God who had parted the Red Sea to let them safely flee Pharaoh, and then mightily brought its depths together again, drowning their oppressor’s army. Moses, God’s appointed leader, had relayed the strict instructions for the meeting: the physical cleansing of their clothes and bodies; the keeping away of even animals from the slopes before the people were bidden by the ram’s horn blast. The life of any that touched it before then would be forfeit. God, their God, was coming down! But the approach was more than the fickle bunch could take; Scripture records that they backed away and begged Moses to go meet with God for them, as they dared not. (Exodus 20:18-21)
This event is what led to God developing an entire religious structure and system facilitating His presence among them. God unveiled to Moses a heavenly pattern for the erecting of Israel’s tabernacle and worship system. Chosen people or not, Israel could not or would not bear personal interaction with Holy God. So, priests, sacrifices, washings, sprinklings of blood, prescribed processes, curtains, and boundaries were instituted to cover sin and guilt, assuage fear, and protect the Children of Israel. Significantly and accessibly located at the center of their encampment, the tent structure was certainly a step up from their standing in the doorway of their own tents as Moses alone communed with God in the earliest tent of meeting. But the tabernacle was still a far cry from what the Almighty desired.
Meeting Mainz’s Dom
These events recorded in Exodus filled my mind the morning after my husband and I arrived in the German city of Mainz (pronounced, ‘mines’). It was an American holiday, so we headed out of our local village to see a little more of Germany. It was becoming a common observation that when we would enter a town or city, the spires and towers of its cathedral or Dom would alwayshave a way of making their presence not just seen but felt. Especially in historically significant cities like Worms, the main cathedrals rise like titans on guard, slowly looming into view as one drives in, as if to assert, “You have entered my domain.”
Mainz’ Cathedral was no different. The tenth century town planners so strategically positioned the structure and its surrounding compounds, that its presence is always felt. At the end of each alley in its vicinity, it presents like a hallway monitor, giving you the warning glare. Early next morning, when I pulled open the hotel room curtains, I was unexpectantly met with the sight of the Cathedral’s main bulk as it faced East in the early morning grey. It seemed poised to instruct the sun on how to conduct its rising that day– how best let to highlight its towers, spires and all. As I watched, the sun even seemed to obey, the sky changing colours as if to best set off the facets of the commanding oversized jewel. First it hung a curtain that was gloomy grey, then pre-dawn navy blue, followed by a dirty wintry veil. Then finally with flourish, the sky radiated a resplendent golden white, as the sun broke through and illuminated the surrounding clouds. It provided a satiny celestial backdrop for the church’s red sandstone bricks and made them glow orange. The witch’s hat spires stood erect, black and silver, and its crowning accessories, orbs and vanes, glimmered golden.
Sandstone Sepulchers and built-in mourners!
Sadly, these commanding structures, raised over most of Germany’s towns, planted on its landscape over centuries, have become sad monuments, not just to a bygone era, but to an ever-present death, and Mainz Cathedral seemed even more so. For all its commanding presence, its bulk connoted little more to us than a cavernous tomb. Unlike the solid Sinai, which quaked at the approach of the Living God, this ‘mountain’ was more akin to Egypt’s pyramids. The structure housed what appeared to be mostly dusty secondary altar areas and abandoned confessional booths in the wings (transepts*), along the sides of the sanctuary (nave*). Vaults and tombs of various monarch’s and ancient nobles, furnished its walls with their marble draped images locked in pompous postures of stone, commandingly erect or eternally reclined. I wondered what worshipper, coming in on the Lord’s Day, would be inspired to think heavenly thoughts, among such décor comprising statuary embellished with skulls, skeletons and even the grim reaper.
Unexpectedly, however, the Mainz Cathedral was not a silent tomb. It insisted on speaking, or at least in making sounds of distinct variety. From dawn till late evening, its bells tolled, not on the hour, but on the quarter hour! Every fifteen minutes, it made its presence known to the whole town! And a huge aural surprise awaited us as we entered its front doors: Passing the vaccine-status checker on our left and the reclining beggar on our right, we entered to the sound of what I mistook for someone tuning up to play a pipe organ; there were pipes evident on several walls, high up to its vaulted ceilings, in various spots. I worried that we were about to intrude upon a commencing service.
But all that was in session that day was a filming crew at work, complete with portable lights, director, actress, and hovering drone camera. They did not seem the least put off by our presence, nor that of the few other tourists milling around the dismal spaces. But the haunting sound kept asserting itself, sometimes comingling with the hum of the film crew’s drone camera. Soon it dawned on me that there was no particular tune being pursued by whomever was ‘messing with the organ’ as I thought. As my husband and I wandered around we finally realized that no human fingers were producing those sounds. What was occurring was totally aeolian! – The wind, which was high that day, was coursing through the turrets and cupolas of the cathedral and making eerie harp-like sounds which rose and fell with the strength of the mid-winter gusts. With eagle eyes, the architect scoured the structure for design features which could explain the effect but found none readily evident. We searched the literature put out on a table near the exit for any that would inform of this interesting feature of the Cathedral’s design. Finding nothing, we resorted to checking even Google. Nothing turned up!–No mention of the mysterious aeolian harps of the Mainz Cathedral. With the tributes to death all around that space, the mournful tones were sadly fitting and left us straining to comprehend what kind of fellowship with a loving God ever took place in such a structure, but gave up. We pulled ourselves away, realizing that the language being spoken by that mournful edifice was not of a pattern or rhythm that we, in our day, could grasp.
Unimpressed by the impressive
As we skirted the exterior of the cathedral, and felt its belittling effect, just as we had at the Dom St. Martin in Worms and the Basilica of Constantin in Trier, my thoughts returned to God’s efforts to fellowship with the newly liberated children of Israel. Did they flee His presence for lack of comprehension, like we had fled the Mainz Cathedral? Even if they did, thank God He did not stop trying to reach them; He did not stop working His plan to reconnect with us, humans, to re-establish the fellowship lost in Eden when Adam and Eve distrusted, disobeyed and distanced themselves, and us all, from Him.
Yet even as God enacted the final stages of His redemption plan for Mankind, walking on earth in His incarnation with the disciples, grand edifices still stood in the way. The gospel of Matthew records,
“Then Jesus went out and departed from the temple, and His disciples came up to show Him the buildings of the temple. 2And Jesus said to them, “Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down.” Matt.24:1-2.(NKJV)
As they viewed the impressive Herodian temple in Jerusalem, in Jesus’ day, I imagine that the disciples felt as I tend to, standing in the shadow of imposing structures such as Germany’s cathedrals. Massive humanistic edifices and systems, designed to control distance between us and God, disempower the hungry soul and block access to God. Guilty and easily awed by appearances, we become as grasshoppers in our own eyes— afraid of being obliterated by a holy God, while man-made giants further intimidate and block the way to Him.
Jesus’ words, in response to His disciples’ awe-struck expressions, foretold the destruction of the temple which had taken forty-six years to build. Later, as He drove the merchants out of the prayer courts, the temple’s religious leaders accosted Him, demanding proof of His authority to carry out such actions. The proof He offered was destruction and resurrection of the Temple of His own Body. They assumed a threat to their realm of rule, enshrined as that was in the edifice of the temple itself. Their fears were justified, the temple was destined to go down; but of infinitely greater importance was the fact that the days of the existence of their monument to dead religiosity would be ended by Jesus’ atonement. As ones who had long chosen the approval and fear of man over the sincere pursuit of God, Jesus described them as white-washed sepulchers.
Stowing away the blueprint: at Calvary
How bitterly rang the irony that when the second person of the Godhead, came vulnerably as the Lamb of God, the Jewish experts in the Law did not shrink back in fear or incomprehension as their ancient relatives had, but aggressively pursued Him to death. Yet even this was worked into God’s Master plan; in slaying the Holy One they shed the blood that was needed to be presented in the heavenly tabernacle. Unwittingly, they helped to open the true and living way back to fellowship with the Father, that which He had desired since it was lost in the Garden. What Caiaphas and company thought they were doing to preserve their control and supervision of the temple system was instead fulfilling it and rendering it no longer necessary. It had merely been an illustration of Him, whose life, death, burial and resurrection was its fulfillment. As far as God was concerned, the covenant Laws and tabernacle-temple worship system, which had become a solid walled edifice against true fellowship with Him, was now folded up and laid aside, as every good blueprint should be, having served its purpose.
The architect and I had never planned to make touring Germany’s cathedrals a main activity, but wind up being drawn in every time. Each time we drive away and allow those ancient titans to sink again into the town’s skyline in our rearview mirror, we try to deduce from their trappings and historical period what motivated their wealthy sponsors and designers. In so doing, we likely trespass on territory that is only God’s to know; but there are certainly lessons to be gained from Jesus’ adjustment of the disciples’ admiration of Jerusalem’s outstanding edifice. As a young boy he spent at least two days and nights in said temple, engaging its leaders. And at the height of His full three-year ministry He zealously, even fiercely, drove out violators of its sanctity. And in His last days on earth he lamented,
““O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me. And now, look, your house is abandoned and desolate.”
Matthew 23:37-38 (NLT)
As I tour Germany’s houses of worship, once intended for God’s glory, I sense in some minute way what the Savior-Creator must have felt over Jerusalem and its temple. Interesting that He declared the temple abandoned and desolate though at that time it was still doing a rip-roaring business. The warning is to every house of worship— whether a castle-like edifice, a feat of modern architecture or a thatched structure in a forest clearing— without the light of Christ present in the hearts of its worshippers, it is also just a sad, abandoned, desolate and mournful mausoleum.
That One Eternally Beautiful Mountain
Today Germany’s cathedrals are matter-of-factly maintained by taxation and, as one young German told me, they establish cultural affiliation to ensure a place for infant baptism, wedding and, most important burial. Meanwhile, the good news is that, scattered all over Germany today, the church alive crams into unlikely, unassuming buildings, warehouse structures etc. each Sunday. There, God is pleased to meet with His children as they joyfully join Him atop the one mountain that forever speaks the best Word!
“…you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to countless thousands of angels in a joyful gathering. You have come to the assembly of God’s firstborn children, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God himself, who is the judge over all things. You have come to the spirits of the righteous ones in heaven who have now been made perfect. You have come to Jesus, the one who mediates the new covenant between God and people, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks of forgiveness instead of crying out for vengeance like the blood of Abel. Be careful that you do not refuse to listen to the One who is speaking. For if the people of Israel did not escape when they refused to listen to Moses, the earthly messenger, we will certainly not escape if we reject the One who speaks to us from heaven! When God spoke from Mount Sinai his voice shook the earth, but now he makes another promise: “Once again I will shake not only the earth but the heavens also.” This means that all of creation will be shaken and removed, so that only unshakable things will remain. Since we are receiving a Kingdom that is unshakable, let us be thankful and please God by worshiping him with holy fear and awe.”
Hebrews 12:22-28 (NLT)
*Typical traditional Medieval church structural elements http://tcoinc.com/The_Faith/Docs/Church_Building.pdf