Sunday, February 19, 2023 | Trey Comstock
The scale of the Astrodome may have messed with my young brain. We moved back to Houston from Philly, when I was five, and then moved to Belgium, when I was eight. This means that I had real memories of Houston prior to moving to abroad. Specifically, I’d been in the Astrodome, which to that point in my life was the most impressive structure that I’d ever been seen. As we traveled through Europe and saw Cathedral after Cathedral, I kept thinking to myself, “Well, they’re no Astrodome.”
Factually, I was correct. The Dome is way bigger than all of them. Now, as elementary schooler, I didn’t appreciate that the builders of the Cathedrals didn’t have the same tools and technology available to them as construction engineers of the 1960s. Notre Dame, et al, predate my beloved Dome by many centuries. So, we need to grade on a curve, and as an adult, I do. As a child, I could sometimes be at a loss as to what all the fuss was about.
That changed, when I went to Sagrada Familia in my late 20s. Located in Barcelona, Spain, and designed by the famous architect, Antoni Gaudi, Sagrada Familia will only finish its construction in 2024. It’s not hundreds of years old. Gaudi penned it a little over a hundred years ago, and given his more modern style, he didn’t copy what came before. He wanted to produce the effect of the old Cathedrals for the more jaded modern eye.
As I’ve written about in this space before, Cathedrals stretch to the sky to draw your eye and soul heavenward. The architecture seeks to illicit in the worshipper a Transfiguration type moment, where the scale and height of the building help you comprehend viscerally a bit of God’s grandeur. In a world with nothing taller than a handful of stories, and a good chunk of the population living in huts, the sight of a Cathedral would have had incredible power. Time and progress rob us (especially city dwellers) of this. By now, a good chunk of us have seen bigger.
I would describe the outside of Sagrada Familia as either odd or polarizing, but as my mother always told me, it’s what’s on the inside the counts. Nothing could have prepared me for my first view of the interior. I walked in and nearly fell over. The walls look impossibly tall and impossibility thin. The glass and the thin white walls make the space luminous. You want to just keep looking up, higher and higher, until eventually you fall over backwards. Gaudi had better tools and techniques, and he used them to incredible effect. Your mind soars. The building draws you to a height you didn’t think possible.
The story of the Transfiguration wants to remind you of the scale and power of God. Exodus spends a lot of time showing how terrified the people were of God’s presence, of its potentially destructive amount of power. They would routinely send Moses in their stead, rather than face a full encounter themselves. Even Moses had to turn his back, when the full power of God passed by. John, James, and Peter get a taste of that same medicine. First they see Moses and Elijah and get really excited, but they true fireworks hadn’t shown up yet. “While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.” (Matthew 17:5-6 NRSV) An overwhelming amount of God’s power arrives, as at his baptism, claims Christ, and knocks John, James, and Peter to the floor. God may be our heavenly parent, but God remains impossibly powerful.
Christ’s next line is equally important. “But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’” (Matthew 17:7 NRSV) Seeing the awestruck terror, Jesus moves to comfort and reassure. God possess ultimate power and ultimate love. God invites us with love to share in that power. Like the soaring interior of Sagrada Familia, Jesus draws us in and upwards.
So much of the Gospel is about making God personal. Jesus gets born, grows up, walks, talks, eats, cries. For the original audience, this felt radically different from the all powerful force of a God that they knew. A God who spoke to prophets on mountains, laid whole nations low, raised up and brought down kings, and sat in the center of a massive Temple. They knew of ultimate power and needed to meet ultimate love. 2,000 years later, we may have gotten a little too comfortable with ultimate love that we need to be reminded of the ultimate power that knocked John, James, and Peter to their knees. We need to have our eyes drawn upwards to contemplate the grandeur of the God that loves us.