Lift up your heads, O you gates; lift them up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in. Psalm 24:9
During our month long journey in Europe my wife and I had the opportunity to explore literally dozens of historic cathedrals and churches, both large and small, grand and humble, crowded and empty. Some of them like the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel in Rome, The Duomo in Florence and Notre Dame in Paris are among the world’s most famous. Each church had a unique story to tell of its origin and conveyed incredible devotion and ingenuity by its design and artistic embellishment. Each took scores if not hundreds of years to build and had stood the test of time by their very existence up to a millennium or more after their completion. That for an American, where one celebrates any building older than 100 and venerates anything over 200 years old is mind boggling.
When I discovered that the Duomo, begun in 1296 took 140 years to build and that one artist, Lorenzo Ghiberti, took 27 years to craft just one set of doors for the Baptistery I was literally blown away. It is hard for me to imagine that kind of enduring devotion being poured into creating a building or work of art. One presumes or at least hopes that ultimately the motivation had to be God’s glory, but consider the impact of a similar commitment and devotion today, especially if it were translated into building the church of Jesus Christ which is His body and spreading the gospel. Bottom line, like so many things in Europe, an extravagant price was paid to build edifices of enduring value. The Duomo, by the way, with its external geometric designs in white, green and red marble is absolutely stunning to behold.
Sadly most of the churches we visited apart from being overrun by tourists were bereft of worshippers. At best, places for expressions of prayer and worship in the cavernous spaces, were typically reserved for a few devotees by cordoning off or curtaining a side chapel. That stark act of partitioning such small places for spiritual matters in the midst of a great cathedral originally designed to glorify God was heart rending. But the indictment is that the space allotted was all the space that was needed. One could not help but acknowledge that the glory of the true church had long since departed.
There were of course exceptions, and one of the most remarkable was Sacré-Cœur Basilica in Paris. Outside the church hangs a banner which declares that for 125 years there has been a non-stop, 24/7 prayer meeting. That church, a relative late comer by European standards, was built in the 1870s with the express desire to foster spiritual renewal declaring “the hour of the Church has come.”
But the one thing that most impacted me about nearly all the churches we visited were the ceilings. Ah the ceilings. My initial impression was that an almost inordinate amount of time, creativity, energy and effort were invested in the ceilings. Coupled with the amazing domes and vaults, the ceilings, in frescoes or mosaics, invariably glittered with vibrant colors often accented with gold. Everyone far below on the floor are forced quickly to become accustomed to arching the back, craning the neck and duck waddling in a circle all the while gazing heavenward in an attempt to take it all in. Michelangelo’s iconic ceiling in the Sistine Chapel is a case in point. How does one even begin to comprehend the vastness, the intricacy, the meaning of it all?
But in my surmising there was a critical message at the heart of their magnificent obsession with ceiling design. Throughout the Scripture we find a recurring exhortation and the words of Christ Himself, telling us to lift up our heads, to look up. There is in that posture a positioning of one self, when looking heavenward to God, to be in a place to see and hear the message of redemption. Humankind in its lostness and separation from God, in its doubt and unbelief, in its depravity and self-centeredness ultimately can find help and hope only by looking heavenward. Jesus said “stand and look up for your redemption is drawing nigh.” (Luke 21:28)
As we gaze at the mundane world around us and the clay upon which we stand we are easily distracted from the things of God, and are tempted or confronted with our own limitations. What genius the builders and adorners of the cathedrals of old had to design a place where God is preeminent that beckons people to focus heavenward. There is a timeless principle in that for every Christ follower. Hope and faith rise as we look up, up to God from which our help comes.
And ceilings themselves were more than mere adornment, they were all intentionally meant to convey a message, through the themes of their art, of God’s redemption plan. In my observation church by church, each ceiling had one or more of the salient facts of that plan such as His original intention for man in creation, the fall, Old Testament themes leading up to and pointing to the coming and death of Christ, His glorious resurrection, the end of the age and the final judgment. It is a fact that the creators and designers of these ceilings wanted to portray for and communicate to the earthbound commoners in attendance, who were often illiterate, God’s redemptive plan for them and their eternal accountability for what they did with it.
Also there was in the soaring majesty of the architecture a call to a nobler, more hope-filled life where spirit triumphs over flesh, Christ vanquishes sin and death, and the glories of heaven transcend hell.
What worldly troubles are weighing you down today? Where are your eyes focused? Imagine yourself in a beautiful cathedral, bathed in a kaleidoscope of light streaming through the stained glass and beckoning you to look up at an even more glorious ceiling. Lift up your head, lift up your eyes, and behold your redeemer, your King of Glory coming in. All else pales in comparison and the things of the earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.
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