Cathedrals: Respect for God or Man?
Notre Dame de Paris, St. Peter’s Basilica, and Canterbury may be some of the most famous cathedrals in the world. Whether you are a Christian or an Atheist, seeing cathedrals up close or stepping inside of them leaves us awestruck and bewildered. They are glorious, beautiful, and almost gravity defying in their impossible greatness. This past week I was able to attend a good friend’s wedding, and while it wasn’t one of the famous cathedrals, it was a beautiful one none the less. When I first entered it was breathtaking. I have never stood inside such architecture before. Everywhere you looked you saw reverence for God. The walls were oozing with scripture and imagery. Everything was carefully placed in order to bring magnification to God and His glory. Modern church buildings, as nice as they are, do not compete with cathedrals.
Most people might quickly think about the origination of cathedrals as being something that started when the Catholic Church was the only church to exist (or at least something like that). They are associated with Catholicism for the most part. However, this is not always the case. The cathedral that I went to yesterday was actually Episcopal. Personally, just from standing in one I do not think I would be able to tell the difference, but I am sure people of those denominations would know what to look for. Another thing we know about Cathedrals is that they are very old.
Sure, the origination of what we now associate with cathedrals probably did start with the Catholic Church. However, I would also like to suggest that their concept came many years before Peter himself was even born. I would suggest that the first idea of the cathedrals came from King Solomon and the temple that he built for the Lord. Take a look at the first seven chapters of 2 Chronicles and you will begin to get an idea of what the temple of Solomon might have looked like. The thing was huge, over half a football field in length. It was adorned from top to bottom and all around in gold and other expensive artifacts. While there may have been a number of materials that are no longer used (and a whole lot more gold) the way that Solomon designed the temple reminds me a lot of the cathedrals that I see today.
Cathedrals for man. Cathedrals for God.
One of the verses that really stands out for me in the Solomon story is 2 Chronicles 7:1-2:
1When Solomon finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple. 2The priests could not enter the temple of the Lord because the glory of the Lord filled it.
To me, this proves that what Solomon had done was accepted by the Lord. The people were incredibly wealthy from the success that God had given them (2 Chron. 7:5 is equally if not more mind blowing in this regard). They could afford to build such a grand temple for God and He was pleased with it as proven when he entered it.
However, it would appear that things might be a little bit different when it came to some of the days of the Catholic Cathedrals. At times, people were starving in the area and the church continued to build giant elaborate cathedrals. While honoring God is something that we are all supposed to do, I think that the problem with the huge ornate cathedrals was that while they were built to glorify God, the people were missing the point. Jesus also told us to take care of the poor and needy, and in other places in the Old Testament God says that it is better to obey than to sacrifice. It would have been better if the needy people were taken care of by the church rather than build elaborate buildings that were supposed to be for the glory of God. In reality, the cathedrals represented the power and wealth that the church had. It would be many years after some of the greatest cathedrals were built that Martin Luther would come along and create a schism (albeit unintentional schism). The church was corrupt, and to some extent the cathedrals were probably built using some of this construction. They were not always built to glorify God, at least not completely.
This brings us to the world that we are living in today. We do not see cathedrals being built anymore. Churches now have a more modern look and have cafes instead of stone pillars, musical instruments instead of candelabras and pipe organs, and comfy seats instead of wooden pews and pillows to kneel on. Do not get me wrong, I do not think that this is an entirely bad thing. Cathedrals can be very intimidating. Even I felt a bit intimidated when I walked around the Episcopal cathedral yesterday. The place was huge, beautiful, and laced with spiritual overtones, undertones, and in between tones. It was incredibly humbling and really did reflect the reverence of God. It was a testimony to who he was and reminded me of the respect that he deserves. I think that God is honored and glorified by modern sanctuaries as well, but it is a completely different field and reaching people in a different way. For example, modern churches are much easier to invite people to as opposed to the domineering liturgical services held in a cathedral. Interestingly enough, I have seen some young adult Christians rediscover a love for the traditional and liturgical. They seem to see God more clearly in the ritualistic atmosphere of the older church. I think that this is something to praise God for as well as for the modern churches that he has allowed us to build. Either way, I would have to say that if you are given the opportunity to take a stroll through a cathedral you should not turn it down. Bask in the beauty that was created and think about the respect that it forces us to give to God, the Creator of everything.