I rejoiced with those who said to me, “Let’s go to the LORD’s house!” – Psalm 122:1 (CEB)
My family and I just returned from a truly wonderful trip to Europe. Dave and I wanted to travel abroad with our boys at least once before they graduated from high school. We chose Paris and London because there is so much there they have studied in school. We also wanted to go to Normandy, a place Dave and I had never been before. The jewel of the trip, though, was the bike tour we took in Brittany and Normandy. Besides the opportunity to bike, we saw beautiful scenery and small towns that we would never have seen in normal tourist-operating mode.
Regardless of whether you are in the cities or the countryside, one thing you see a lot of in France are churches. We visited three famous churches in Paris: Notre Dame, Dome des Invalides, and Sacre Coeur Basilica. All three were beautiful and unique. Mass was being held while we were in Notre Dame (but I’ll post more on that another time) but the other two churches were fairly quiet.
While on our bike tour, I visited cathedrals in St. Malo, Dinan and Bayeux as well as Mont St. Michel.
But these weren’t the only churches I saw. There is a church in every town. As we enjoyed the beautiful countryside, the sight of a church steeple let us know we were close to another town. If we biked through five towns each day, we saw at least five churches – all of them massive structures.
I wondered whether this is the problem with large, fixed church buildings. The church doesn’t need to move out of the town, but do these magnificent buildings with their soaring steeples limit our ability to meet people where they are?
Many of the churches I visited had moveable chairs rather than pews bolted to the floor. I wonder how often they move them – or whether they always leave them in long rows stretching from the chancel to the door? Since France is largely Catholic and the Eucharist is central to their worship service, it seems the layout would mostly stay the same.
Even in the smaller churches, I often felt so far from the table where the Eucharist was celebrated. Realistically, in the smallest of these, I was closer than I am in my own church – but something about the narrow structure and long rows made me feel more distant. Notre Dame had TV screens on the side and back sections so that you could see what the priest was doing. But how are you an active participant in this worship?
He asked me, “Human one, can these bones live again?” I said, “LORD God, only you know.” – Ezekiel 37:3 (CEB)
There is a church in every town – and every church has a cemetery. Every church had a cemetery – or people buried in the church itself. This wasn’t my experience growing up in northern Wisconsin or the community I live in now. In my hometown, there was a Catholic cemetery but the Catholic churches didn’t have a cemetery next to them. Neither did the Protestant churches. The closest I’ve really been to having a cemetery at the church is the columbarium outside my current church.
I think again about looking for the living among the dead and living stones. Since France is largely post-Christian, I don’t know how active these churches actually are. I wondered as I viewed all of these steeples and all of these churches with their cemeteries, whether the steeple or the cemetery better represented the Church’s role in the community. Do these church buildings – despite their beauty – simply memorialize what is dead?
Are they still a place for the living?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. For most of these churches, all I saw was the outside. I was never there on Saturday night or Sunday morning. These massive buildings served a purpose in their time: providing hope in a dark period, providing jobs, providing a place for the community to gather. The adjoining cemeteries also serve as a visual reminder that Christ is not entombed in the ground and that the Eucharist unites us with Christ and with all believers in every time and place. I’m not saying that we should no longer have church buildings of any type; they still do serve a purpose in our time.
But I am asking questions.
I wonder what the place of church buildings and Church are in our communities today – and whether we, or anyone else, makes a distinction between the two. I also wonder what we are doing today as the Church that will simply be a memorial to something that is dead rather than continuing to be living stones. There is a church in every town – but is the Church there, too?
Glory to God, who is able to do far beyond all that we could ask or imagine by his power at work within us; glory to him in the church and in Christ Jesus for all generations, forever and always. Amen. – Ephesians 3:20-21 (CEB)