Beyond Castles & Cathedrals

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33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time


As far back as I can remember, I have always been fascinated with castles and cathedrals. It didn’t matter whether they lay in ruins or were still in active use. The renderings of these grand and imposing structures that I first saw were probably in children’s storybooks of tales about knights and their adventures; and sometime later, in encyclopedias, history books, and the occasional travel magazine. I was mesmerized by the pictures I saw, and I would return often to lose myself in thought. I admired the tall towers and lofty steeples that rose to the skies like arms held out to God in silent supplication. I loved the thick walls of moss covered stone, here and there marred with soot or overgrown with ivy, and the harsh toll of past winter storms. I was impressed by the windows gleaming in the sun bearing royal insignia and colorful scenes of familiar stories from the bible. And I was most especially captivated by soaring archways and oversized entrances with some massive portcullises and drawbridges, and real moats beneath them where hungry crocodiles awaited their next meal. And when my family went to the beach, I would spend hours building sand castles at the water’s edge, not leaving until they washed away when the tide came in.

So when I first had the opportunity to travel, I knew I had to go to Italy, and the British Isles. I took a ton of digital photos, which many of you have seen if you followed my journeys on my blog. And I am very much aware that there are other more famous places in the world with even more impressive structures. Not to worry. I will just add them to my bucket list. I still have time. My traveling days are not over yet.

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And upon further reflection, I realized I was not attracted so much by the earthly power and glory these buildings represented. Instead, I was more impressed by their endurance over time, and their sheer physical magnitude. Many nations and kingdoms, many kings and popes have come and gone, leaving behind these monuments to call to one’s mind a time and place long ago and far away, and a number of larger-than-life figures who have since returned to dust, only their likeness enduring in stone. Yet now these stand silent and proud, still evoking admiration and awe, but with it a tinge of loss for such wonder and beauty that belong to a former age, never again to return.

I suppose we all prefer to put faith in structures that are stable, that remain unruffled and unyielding in the face of turmoil and upheaval. We will look to the strong to speak to us words of encouragement when our knees go weak. We will walk more decisively toward a familiar face and a reassuring voice that calmly calls our name in the midst of a storm. We will lock our gaze on the horizon to help us maintain our balance when everything around us seems to make little sense. Formidable buildings and structures give us that sense of stability. So when we picture a worst case scenario, surrounded by turmoil and chaos, we will dread it the more when the ground beneath our feet gives way, and the stable structures and institutions we once relied on come crumbling to the ground. It is a most disturbing and terrifying image of the end time, an image we will find even in sacred scripture. And yet Jesus tells us not to be afraid.

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We need to remember that the gospels were written at least two generations after the resurrection, long after the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70 of the Christian Era, long after the destruction of the temple built by Herod, the death of 1.1 million of the city’s inhabitants, and the capture and enslavement of those who survived. The gospel writer was well aware that Jesus’ words had come to pass, and the great temple that everyone so admired was indeed leveled to the ground. And yet, Jesus tells his listeners and us to stand firm and place faith in him.

And all through human history before and since, we have seen nations and kingdoms rise and fall. We have heard accounts of powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues, awesome sights and mighty signs in the sky. Just in recent years, there have been a number of powerful storms, tsunamis, and historic floods that have ravaged communities, and sinkholes, nuclear plant meltdowns, and massive earthquakes that have leveled cities and villages across the globe. We have witnessed turmoil and unrest, brought on by violent uprising and revolution in Africa and the Middle East, ongoing conflicts that never seem to resolve, and two world wars so far. Economic and political systems that we might have trusted to be stable and unwavering have suffered some volatility and unsteadiness. But Jesus reminds us, “See that you are not deceived. … When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end.”

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As the liturgical year comes to a close (the Advent Season begins in two weeks), and the lessons of scripture these days invite us to reflect on the realities that endure, we are reminded that this world is filled with passing things. We are here for a season, but we are really meant for eternity. We might celebrate beauty and wonder in this life, and so we should, with laughter and song, and good food and drink with the people we love. But more and better awaits us in the life to come. We will even experience human weakness and disappointment, sadness and strife, but what God is preparing for us will surpass our grandest expectations.

So in his second letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul reminds us to live faithfully and joyfully, without anxiety or drama, keeping busy and minding our own business, working quietly and eating our own food. And “if anyone is unwilling to work, neither should that one eat”—memorable advice for busybodies and slackers. But we should not forget to take care of one another, especially the poor and the vulnerable in our midst. And despite our best efforts, we will probably still experience hardship and inconvenience, but we cannot give in to discouragement. God is very much present and active in the world, and God will not forget those who remain steadfast. The prophet Malachi holds out hope for God’s people. “For you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.”

We will likely break ground for our new church in the spring, after the worst of the winter is over. The Finance subcommittee of the Building committee is hard at work on the numbers, and the project will come in around $5 million. As we and previous generations of parishioners have cherished this church building, we and the generations that come after us will learn to love and honor the new one. And like all of us, it will be around for a time. And like the great castles and cathedrals we admire, this building is a reminder that all things will pass, but you and I are meant for more and better.

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Rolo B Castillo © 2016