Advent People: Rodin's The Cathedral

1 Peter 2:1-5, 9-12 The Living Stone and a Chosen People

Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.


But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.


Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

Images: Auguste Rodin, The Cathedral, Modeled and originally carved in stone in 1908, Musée Rodin cast 1955, Bronze. Dimensions: 25 1/4 x 12 3/4 xx 13 1/2 in. (64.1 x 32.4 x 34.3 cm), The North Carolina Museum of Art.


Auguste Rodin (French, 1840 – 1917) is largely acknowledged as the father of modern sculpture. He was classically trained and greatly admired the Renaissance master Michelangelo but challenged the traditional ideals of beauty and “completeness.” Rodin’s work shows that he was captivated by the human body’s capacity for physical and emotional power and architectural expression. The Cathedral, like many of Rodin's works such as The Kiss and The Thinker, was originally carved in stone and later cast in bronze for reproduction.


In the work’s description, the Musée Rodin states:

The Cathedral is a combination of two right hands, belonging to two different figures. It was entitled The Ark of the Covenant, before being named The Cathedral, very probably after the publication of Rodin’s Les Cathédrales de France, in 1914. Parallels may be drawn between the mysterious inner space that seems to emanate from the composition and Gothic architecture.


The Gothic churches in France inspired Rodin in his aesthetic quest for expression, movement, and transformation and this becomes plain as you circle The Cathedral: The sense of space and shadows shift in relationship to the light and form of the hands. Like the great cathedrals in Europe that have withstood wars, famines, plagues and persecution, Rodin’s hands communicate exquisite gentleness.


In the space or opening between the hands, there is a sense of prayer and mystery. However, the composition was not meant to imitate a formal or traditional symbol of prayer as you would with a single individual using his left and right hands. Instead, the two right hands from different figures points to a communal intimacy that is birthed out of a sacred vulnerability by hands roughly scarred by the artist’s chisel. With these marked and “unfinished” hands, Rodin invokes a holy image of gathering with a gesture of love.


A Masterpiece Created for Good Works


In God’s imagination as outlined in 1 Peter, the church is an architectural wonder made of “living stone.” As the body of Christ, we are uniquely suited to embody and display his love to others. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph. 2:10)


What does it mean to be the church in this year of waiting for “normal”? Sadly, many church members do not know the answer and there has been a dramatic loss in church life. Despite all the best tech efforts of live streaming on YouTube, Facebook and Zoom gatherings, it is reported that 1 in 5 churches are expected to shut down in the next year due to a loss of membership and financial support. The main reason that people say they will not be returning to their churches when there are opportunities to do so is that they realized their relationships within the church were not as strong as they thought they were.


While some believe that gathering with other Christians is not critical to their spiritual health, studies show that while more people may look up bible verses on an app when they need encouragement on the fly, there has been a significant drop in daily bible reading. The relationship between the community of believers and an individual’s desiring the “pure milk of the word” is essential.


Becoming Advent People


Henri Nouwen writes in Waiting for God, that open-ended waiting on God was the characteristic of the first people in the Gospel recordings: Zachariah, Elizabeth and Mary, Simeon, Anna were all waiting for God’s word to be fulfilled! Waiting, active waiting, hopeful waiting, was the key sign of the true Israel.


Nouwen states, “The spiritual life is a life in which we wait, actively present to the moment, trusting that new things will happen to us, new things that are far beyond our own imagination, fantasy or prediction. That, indeed, is a very radical stance toward life and a world preoccupied with control.”


Further, Nouwen says that when we draw near to one another, we, like Elizabeth and Mary, create space to give God praise while we wait. When we gather, we empower one another to wait patiently, courageously, and expectantly after they received promises from God (Luke 1:39-56).


Nouwen writes:

“I think that is the model of the Christian community. It is a community of support, celebration, and affirmation in which we can lift up what has already begun in us. The visit of Elizabeth and Mary is one of the Bible’s most beautiful expressions of what it means to form community, to be together, gathered around a promise, affirming that something is really happening.…In this way we can live with courage, trusting that there is a spiritual power in us that allows us to live in this world without being seduced constantly by despair, lostness, and darkness. That is how we dare to say that God is a God of love even when we see hatred all around us. That is why we can claim that God is God of life even when there is death and destruction and agony all around us. We say it together. We affirm it in one another. Waiting together, nurturing what has already begun, expecting its fulfillment – that is the meaning of marriage, friendship, community, and the Christian life.”


During a pandemic, what does it mean to “bear one another’s burden and fulfill the law of Christ”? (Galatians 6:2) While there are many other factors involved, a church’s leadership should at least consider that relying on preaching and music (corporate gathering), is only a small part of what it means to be the church. When something like a pandemic makes people realize that the primary focus is on a pastor’s sermon and not the life of the community, it becomes too easy to not show up, not to care about waiting with other believers and serving the needs of the community.


Obviously, there are practical considerations that shape what and how we reach out to others during this time but as a “called out” people, the church (both as an organization and the body of Christ) needs to redeem this time with faithful, purposeful and active waiting, fully expecting God to bless this space between us.


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To learn more about the work, see The Cathedral – NCMALearn (ncartmuseum.org) and also The Cathedral | Rodin Museum (musee-rodin.fr)

To learn more about the artist, see Auguste Rodin – NCMALearn (ncartmuseum.org)

To learn more about churches closing due to the pandemic, see 1 in 5 churches facing permanent closure within 18 months due to COVID-19 shutdowns: Barna pres. - The Christian Post

To learn more about the decline of Bible reading, see Bible Reading Drops During Social Distancing...... | News & Reporting | Christianity Today

For Henri Nouwen's essay, see Waiting for God, November 28 reflection found in Watch for the Light, Readings for Advent and Christmas, Plough Publishing House, 2001.

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