Those who have been to Europe know there isn’t a village, town or city that isn’t visible from a distance because of the spire ascending from the glorious cathedrals in the center of town. Majestic churches mark the landscape of Europe. My kids are wearying of waltzing through yet another old church. I’ve done my best to recall for them stuff I learned years ago in courses on the history of Christian architecture and symbolism. Many of the old churches have laser-sensored security alarms in front of paintings and relics because many of these things are made of gold and probably worth bookoo bucks as antique works of art. Each one is a museum to the past. With the exception of an advertisement to attend the Alpha Course in one church, I’ve yet to find much life.

Years ago a pastor colleague and I went to some meetings in downtown Cincinnati and, just because, we went to a Mass at the downtown Cathedral there. Speaking honestly I’ll confess service drained the life right out of me. However I looked over at him and he remarked… “this stuff is jazzes me all over, all your “God-is-my-buddy” songs on the guitar, you can have them… THIS is about the transcendence of God. O the awe of it.” Obviously there are some people hard-wired to find God in the high church setting just as there are others who better connect with him outdoors in the beauty of his creation. I took the rebuke to heart; back then we did lack a proper sense of the fear of the Lord. Interest side note though… a dozen years later, I’m still in ministry, my friend sells medical equipment. I have found Jesus to be a deep well and tradition to be more like a canteen that doesn’t take us very far.

This amazing altar décor is from the St. Michael’s Cathedral outside Salzburg Austria. You’ll need to look close at this picture to see where the subsequent blow up images in this post are taken from.

SOM altar pic

Those of you who’ve seen the Sound of Music may recognize that, in the movie, Maria married Georg von Trapp right here in this church. Everything in this picture is clearly visible in the movie. Every nook of this sanctuary is covered with brilliant gold and oil painted depictions of the saints, Mary and Jesus. There is a side chapel to worship Mary next to the altar, no Jesus in that room at all. Only intercessory candles to light before a 15 foot high blessed Virgin Mary. No place to sit either, only a kneeling altar before her.

The Reformation Churches here don’t get the visitor flow the Catholic churches do – probably because they are plain inside. Here’s a few reason why as spelled out in this second Zwingli book I’m trying to wade through (it’s a really tough read and I’m only halfway through.)

The “images” were said to be the Bible of the poor” encouraging devotion and instruction of the ignorant, but what these ignorant illiterate people made of them we cannot know… There was indeed a general conviction that the whole great company of the saints, depicted so strikingly as individuals, could, and did, plead before the Almighty on behalf of those on earth. In the hour of danger or anxiety, to call upon a saint might be to secure instant help or relief. A man looking into his church, as he ought to do, on his way to work in the fields, would probably gave upon a picture of a great giant St. Christopher staggering under the weight of the little Christ whole he carried over the river. This was thought to act as a kind of insurance ticket, and for that day the man was safe from harm or accident. Popular thought was permeated with expectation of the direct intervention in human affairs of the saints of heaven. To pray to the saint, in some sense to worship the saint, and so likewise his or her image, was an easy and natural transition. (pg. 92, Zwingli, G.R. Potter)

Zwingli preached there was only one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus. It would be wrong to call this teaching Zwinglian. He was just repeating what it says in the Bible. He preached that bowing before and praying to the saints was idolatrous. He preached Exodus 20:3-4, “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth below or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God am a jealous God…

I will share a few pictures here that I find a major distraction (at best) and defilement (at worst.)


skulls on altar

Note the skulls and the dead “souls” trapped in purgatory with Mary presiding just above. I’ve spent a good deal of time in the past couple days reflecting on things like the common practice of burying the bishop inside the church. My kids really got weirded out when I suggested maybe we should bury me someday in what is today the Church at the Gate baptistry. God had rules about keeping a distance from the defilement of dead bodies. Much to think about with regard to all this and those of you who are taking the time to read this I welcome to chime in with your thoughts.

Here’s what my Zwingli book has to say about purgatory:

The Christian revelation was simple: there was heaven and hell, nothing more. For an intermediate state there was neither evidence nor need; salvation through Christ was by God’s grace and mercy; could man come to God through purgatory there was no need for the life and death of Jesus. (p. 123, Zwingli, G.R. Potter)

Zwingli’s more zealous followers, not him personally (he did things orderly), had the churches “cleansed” of the idolatry. The outcome of this cleansing was the elimination of altars – in many places pictures and statues were spontaneously removed by “zealous individuals” – glass windows broken, superstitious objects burnt. (Zwingli himself tried to prevent the destruction of stained glass windows. I was glad to read this as I’m a big fan of stained glass – and can’t wait til we get the stained glass window in the CATG prayer room. Funny memory… we went to a church service once when Kaitlyn was about five, she stood speechless before the stained glass windows. We realized that though she’d never missed a Sunday in church, she’d only been in new churches that meet in high school gyms.) And, so, even though he didn’t tolerate the vandalism, Zwingli’s teaching was clear… the images hindered the direct access of the individual soul to God; they were at best vain distractions, at worst they encouraged idolatry. Money offered to the image of a shrine would be much better given to the poor.

Zwingli’s teaching had far reaching implications – “no purgatory, no indulgences. Masses offered, even prayers said, for the souls of the departed, paid for by relatives and others, were worthless, and the money could be put to better use.”

Instead of standing in judgment over these striking Cathedrals, I have tried to just stay focused on the theme of idolatry and examine my own heart to see where it was present. I’m thankful we can go directly to Jesus.

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God… let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:14, 16