One of the perks of living in Europe is that it’s so very close to… well, Europe. Hence, we’ve seen a lot of cathedrals. London alone has dozens, and while I would never argue that if you’ve seen one cathedral, you’ve seen them all, European cathedrals and chapels do offer a predictable checklist of characteristics: vaulted ceilings. Intricate artistry. Stained glass windows as colorful as Jolly Ranchers. Perhaps that’s why, on our recent day trip to Oxford, the stained-glass west window of Magdalen College Chapel stood out.
It wasn’t colorful.
No showstopping scarlet and jade tones, only gentle neutrals. Subdued browns and greys depicting a sobering scene of the Final Judgement. Only pops of blue sky poked through areas of transparent glass.
The west window wasn’t flashy, but it was captivating.
This Friday, many of us will enter a church or a chapel or a cathedral to contemplate the death of Christ, the man who was God who didn’t strut through our world with pomp and pageantry but “had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” (Isaiah 53:2)
Even so, he captivated multitudes. Still does.
There is nothing glamourous about death, least of all his brutal one. A painter wouldn’t need to stray far from a sepia palette to capture the Judean landscape, the nails and the hammer. The crown of thorns. The crosses. The tomb. The stone.
Lots of browns, lots of dirt and earth, lots of people – some jeering, some weeping – and yes, lots of blood red.
A bleak moment in history that beckons even now. A gritty scene that draws us in. For some, draws us to our knees.
The friendly green palm fronds, that was last week.
The other-worldly dazzling white clothes of Christ’s ascension, that comes later.
But this moment stunk of death. A dark day that got darker and darker until the light in every sense went out altogether.
Jesus the baby entered quietly, he died as a man brutally, he rose as Lord victoriously, to save ordinary people: those with addictions and boring jobs. Dashed dreams and fractured families. He gave up his brilliant splendor to save our dusty, dingy souls.
That is the glory, the beauty, of the old, rugged cross.
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I’m in my happy place when I’m wandering a new city and rambling about it in writing afterwards extends my stay. So ‘cheers’ if you’ve stuck with me thus far. (Penned this after our afternoon in Oxford.)
Backpack on my shoulder
new ground to explore
thru gardens sweet and scattered streets I’ve never walked
me have trod many
before me lays the world
and in this space of breath and grace
the dead speak again once more.
(some interesting history on the Magdalen College Chapel window)
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