23 April 2012

The symbolism of Rochester Cathedral

Jools Holland relates the history and symbolism of Rochester Cathedral. It is an amazing place, and like all cathedrals it is designed to remind us of who we are and what we have in Christ.

The nave of Rochester Cathedral, looking eastWe spent the weekend at Rochester in the county of Kent, the south-eastern corner of England. The historic old town with its imposing castle and beautiful cathedral is today part of a large conurbation including the dockyards and industries of Chatham. But Rochester still retains much of its ancient character with lovely old shops lining a long, straight High Street - part of the Roman road called Watling Street.

We visited the cathedral on Saturday and I enjoyed a recorded commentary narrated by Jools Holland. There are several commentaries available including the reflective one that Donna chose. But I picked the historical guide and it was indeed fascinating. I'd like to share some of the things I learned, and reflect on them because they still speak about our individual spiritual journeys.

The entire building is full of mediaeval symbolism. The ground plan of the cathedral is a cross, and this immediately reminds us of Christ crucified. But there is so much more. And this ancient symbolism is just as appropriate to life today as it was when the cathedral was built.

At the western end of the building is the main entrance, situated at the end of the long arm of the cross. Looking out from the great doorway we see the part of the horizon where the sun sets at the end of each day. So to enter the building it's necessary to turn away from the setting sun, leaving the dying world behind. This is lost on modern visitors, but it would have been very clear to people in mediaeval times. Without electric lighting, evening would be a time of darkness. It was a time when work could no longer be done, truly an ending of the day. Turning our backs on the place where daily life ends we climb the steps to a higher level and enter the Almighty's house. Once inside we are awestruck by the space and openness and beauty. This is a picture of turning our backs on the world and coming into the presence of the Most High.

We are now facing east, looking towards the place where the sun rises and the new day begins. Far ahead of us and at a higher level is the high altar, representing the Presence. Having rejected the world and entered this special place we are at the beginning of a journey forwards and upwards towards the Almighty, towards the new day, and towards the place of new and eternal life.

After walking the length of the nave we come to the place where the north-south and east-west arms of the cross meet. This place represents Christ. It is the place where the bread and wine are received in communion. A rood screen blocks further movement towards the high altar, only the priests and the monks of the choir would have been allowed beyond. For ordinary people it was sufficient to come into the presence of Jesus. The photo shows the carved, stone screen with the organ pipes above it.

And beyond the screen, up futher steps, is the high altar (visible in the photo through the arch in the screen). A lamp hangs from high above, a red light burning in it continuously. This lamp was given to Rochester by the Orthodox church in Jerusalem. It represents the Almighty's presence hovering here. And at the back is a small white light, also continuously burning but not immediately seen by many. This symbolises Christ, a source of light patiently waiting for us to notice him.

We don't need the symbolism of course, but we do need the truth to which it refers. In mediaeval times the symbolism would have been very powerful and would have spoken equally to rich and poor, literate and illiterate, powerful and weak. When it is explained it still speaks to us in the same way.

So here is what Rochester (and all cathedrals) have to say...

Turn your backs on a dying world and enter in to my presence. See my power and majesty and glory. Approach me, trusting and sharing in Jesus Christ my Son. Come to the place where he is, trusting in the effectiveness of his death and new life. Share in his body and blood, given for you. And recognise there's a place you can't yet go, where a new day will dawn. The place where the Father and the Son together will rule for all eternity, their light will never go out.

You may not notice me at first, but I am here. I am waiting for you. Come and find my light in your life, seek me out.

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