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Posts Tagged ‘end of time’

You have probably seen the Sky ‘no compromise’ TV advertising campaign in which Eric Cantona, Forrest Gump-like, walks through some of the great moments of sporting history.

I saw one of the associated posters driving down the A40 recently, which has Cantona looking broody beside the following caption:

WHAT’S THE POINT OF GREATNESS IF YOU CANNOT WATCH IT?

It’s meant as a rhetorical question, but surely there are plenty of answers. Even before I had hit the next set of traffic lights my mind darted from the exquisite carvings around the vault of a gothic cathedral, too distant for the unaided human eye to see, to the spiritual heroism of an enclosed nun like St Thérèse of Lisieux, to the hundreds of thousands of relatives caring for their sick and disabled loved ones without acknowledgement or reward.

But perhaps Eric and his Sky-paymasters would counter, like the medieval theologians, that all this hidden greatness is indeed meant to be seen: in the present moment by God, and at the end of time at the Last Judgment by the whole of creation. Quite an audience. And perhaps they’d give an even less theological answer, which is that I can only point to examples of such hidden greatness and humility because they have in fact come to light. I can take my binoculars to Chartres Cathedral, read a book about Thérèse, or see a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the lives of carers in modern Britain. Technology and the media have made it possible for me to discover this hidden greatness for myself and then to speak about it to others. Lots of paradoxes here.

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Does it matter which way a church faces? The scripture readings this weekend were about the end of the world, and the second coming of the Son of Man. I chose to speak about the physical orientation of Christian churches: how it is an ancient tradition to build them on an east-west axis, so that you enter through the west door and face the sanctuary/altar at the east end. In this way you have a double symbolism: of Christ coming to meet you, like the rising sun, in the liturgy that you are celebrating; and Christ coming to meet you (soon, but not quite yet), at the end of time. So the sanctuary is a threshold that allows us to meet the divine now and to await the divine in the future.

This is all well-known, and doesn’t need blogging about. (See, for example, Part II, Chapter 3, of Joseph Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy.) What was interesting though was preaching about this in a church in Clerkenwell in the centre of London, with two medieval examples just a stone’s throw away. Today’s St Paul’s Cathedral is of course not medieval, but I assume (please correct me) that it roughly follows the floor plan of the previous cathedral. It’s like an arrow on a huge compass at the centre of London, running perfectly east-west. Yes, it happens to sit tidily on the line of the river Thames at that point too; but it illustrates the way the geography of a Christian city can reflect the spiritual longings of the human soul – for a saviour, for God’s final Word to greet us at the end of our lives, and at the end of time.

Inside St Etheldreda's by Lawrence OP.

The second example, just down the road from Clerkenwell, is St Etheldreda’s, Ely Place, in Holburn. This church does not sit at all tidily into its present environment. The east end faces the street, so there is no easy access, and you have to enter the church through a warren of corridors and steps. But once you are there, the same spiritual/geographical truth is apparent, that you enter from the west, from the darkness, and look towards the east, towards the hope of Christ’s coming – in this case represented by a glorious wall of stained-glass above the altar.

There will be hundreds of other examples. It was good to have these at hand on Sunday.

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