Visiting the iconic Cologne Cathedral is fraught with danger. The imposing structure begun in 1248 remains under constant repair. Yet, the threat is not physical. The danger I felt last week was to my sophisticated 21st century post-modern Christian faith (sarcasm intended!)
The grand edifice was begun to house the physical remains of the Three Magi who presented gifts to the baby Jesus. Yes, indeed! Their bones had resided in Milan until 1164 when they were brought to Cologne where they remain in a gold, gem-encrusted reliquary which rests atop the main altar.
By the way, if you care to see the actual manger in which Joseph and Mary laid their infant child it has long been housed in the Chapel of the Nativity at the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome.
I’ve been told that the very foreskin of Jesus was devoutly preserved at his circumcision and can still be venerated somewhere in Europe — I don’t have the time or inclination to verify this claim or its location! Superstition perverts the Gospel. Magic poisons authentic faith. Nevertheless, they abound aplenty!
Pity the one who suggests a story in Scripture can be true but not factual — that the Bible is a proclamation of dynamic covenantal faith, not a presentation of historical facts; that it is a testament to Love, not a treatise of laws. Sadly, this is heresy for many well intentioned folks, some of whom even hold positions of leadership in our faith communities.
Imagine my amazement last week when my belief in the Christian story and commitment to my faith was actually deepened by visiting the Cologne Cathedral. I was awestruck by the majesty of the reliquary and beauty of the edifice. I found myself moved to venerate what I beheld.
No, I most assuredly do not believe the bones inside the bejeweled gold box are the very remains of the Three Kings. But I most definitely believe in the authenticity of faith expressed by builders of and pilgrims to the Cathedral over the last 1000 years!
This assurance came from the way guides and materials spoke about the centrality of Christ. Yes, the reliquary commands a place of prominence. The Three Kings’ search for the Christ Child — lifelong, through joy and sorrow, danger and discovery — is presented as the universal human pilgrimage.
As did the Magi, we all bring different gifts. But whomever we are and whatever we bring, all is to be placed at the service of the King of Kings. The Cologne Cathedral looms as a physical destination. But what we encounter is encouragement to forego the easy, false paths as did these three exemplars of persistent, searching faith. This monumental church was constructed to assure us of this truth — we too will ultimately come face-to-face with the One we seek.
I walked into the Cologne Cathedral skeptical and dismissive of medieval piety and sentimentality. Days later, comfortably settled at home in Minnesota, my faith remains strengthened, encouraged, grounded by what I witnessed.
Is the story enshrined on the banks of the Rhine factual? Not in the least! Is it true? Yes, I stake my life on it!