It was a grey Saturday when we were in Freiburg last month, but we visited the cathedral anyway. I’m not sure if that was the right move.
Certainly the building is impressive from a distance, and just as impressive up close, even surrounded by the stalls of the Saturday farmers’ market. Inside though it felt rather dark, dank and deary, more mausoleum than church.
Maybe that was because we were tired. Or just the lighting. I’m willing to go back on a sunny day and see if that improves my outlook.
I do find though that I frequently have mixed feelings when I visit a European cathedral. Structurally they are impressive, but all too often they have a museum-like atmosphere. They seem to be places where faith was once vibrant, but no longer. Places where people came to celebrate, to mourn, to fellowship, to worship and to reflect on God and man. Offhand I don ‘t recall any of the great tourist-attraction churches I have visited that seemed to reach out to non-Christians with Jesus message of peace, hope and love (except, if I remember correctly, Bayeux Cathedral). To me that is a lost opportunity.
When I went to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul a few years ago I noted the attempts to evangelize there; they wanted me to become Muslim, and reached out in English (and other languages). Do those running the great cathedrals of Europe do that? I don’t think so – but I hope I am wrong.
There were a lot of tourists in Freiburg Cathedral the Saturday before Christmas. It would have been a perfect time to let people know that Jesus is the reason for the season. There was a nativity scene, but no explanation. I think the idea probably was that everyone knows the story, but that is no longer true. Germany has absorbed more than a million refugees in the last couple of years from countries where the Christmas story is for all intents and purposes unknown. If they visit the Freiburg Cathedral, are they going to hear about Jesus? I wonder.
For that matter, can the same question be asked about any church? What sets a church apart from any other building in the community? Is it architecture, or what takes place there? Is it bricks and mortar, or the presence of a loving fellowship?
What reason is there for someone driving by (or walking by or passing by on public transit) to want to find out more about the building and what happens there? In Europe the churches are physically still there, but all too often seem like a relic of the dead past.
There is great beauty, but there is a need for so much more.