Roberta Green Ahmanson

Dreams Become Reality

Citizens of this world—and of the New Jerusalem.

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Between 793 and 805, Charlemagne built a whole church in Aachen, Germany, as a three-dimensional icon of that New Jerusalem. The church itself is designed to welcome Christ when he returns in glory to judge the living and the dead. The building is an octagon, the seven days of creation plus the eighth day of resurrection and new life. The ceiling was originally a mosaic, glittering and golden, showing the 24 elders of Revelation bringing their crowns to Christ. It was copied for the 19th-century restoration. The band at the base of the dome bears an inscription saying that all the numbers have meaning and that Charlemagne built the church. The chandelier, given by Frederick Barbarossa, or Redbeard, in the 12th century, represents the wall of Jerusalem, here with eight gates instead of 12 in order to harmonize with the building.

The gallery above the Aachen chandelier, held up by 32 stone pillars given by Popes Hadrian and Leo III (only 21 are left thanks to French troops at the time of their Revolution) is the setting for the throne where Christ may sit to judge the world. Research has found that it is made of marble from Jerusalem. On one side is the carving of a game found throughout the ancient Roman world. And, there are graffiti in the shape of crosses, leading some to believe the stone may actually have come from the Chapel of the True Cross in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. We know that Charlemagne had a good relationship with the Muslim sultan Harun al-Rashid. So, the stone of the throne may actually be the sultan's gift to the Western ruler. Originally it looked straight across to the Salvation Altar, connecting salvation to judgment and to eternal life. Later, in the 14th century, Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV added a heaven-like chapel to honor Charlemagne and the relics of the Savior. His inspiration was the 13th-century Sainte Chapelle in Paris, built by the French king, St. Louis, to house the relic of the Crown of Thorns. That chapel, too, embodied the New Jerusalem.

My favorite example, though, is the cathedral in Naumburg, Germany. (The original church became a cathedral in 1028, but a chapel to honor those founders wasn't built for another two centuries, in 1248.) When you step into the nave, the choir is to the east. To the west, there's a stone screen with brilliant red light filtering through. You can read the story in stone. The Last Supper. Judas taking the silver, his face a portrait of despair. The treacherous kiss in Gethsemane. Peter's sword severing the servant's ear from his head. Christ before Pilate, terror in the governor's eyes. The flogging. Christ struggling on the road to Calvary. Front and center, the Cross, the doorpost. (This may come from the 4th-century commentary by the African Tyconius, who describes Christ as "the gateway" to heaven.) Above, Christ's bleeding arms form the lintels of the door. Mary is in agony to your left, grieving John to your right. Take a step, another and another. Walk through the cross with me.

Blink your eyes. Ahead is light. Just above, the founders of the church stand poised to step down to welcome you. Beyond the altar, in radiant red, yellow, blue, and green, the prophets, apostles, saints, and virtues call out. Higher still, the Trinity and Christ in glory. All welcome you into heaven. Into the realm of your ultimate citizenship. The New Jerusalem.

All that is well and good, you say, but what difference did it make to the poor and hungry in their time? What difference did it make to the wars being endlessly fought around them? Primasius, an African bishop, who died in 560, wrote that "the pilgrim church rejoices to be formed" after the heavenly Jerusalem to come. That vision was the basis for how these Christians lived in the world. The people who built this vision were the same people who built hospitals and almshouses, even low-income housing. They were the same people who created the peace to end wars for long periods to promote commerce. They created beauty, the beauty of the heavenly vision, and that vision compelled and empowered them to care for the poor, the hurting, the living.

Let me give you two examples from history. The first comes from 6th-century Rome. By ad 568, that great city was in ruins, ravaged by 150 years of Goth, Vandal, Byzantine, and Longobard invasion. Once a city of perhaps 1.5 million, Rome bottomed out at 30,000. Outside the city, continual wars turned fields back into swamps. Invaders threatened and sometimes took over once-productive church-run farms. Malaria, cholera, and bubonic plague followed. Jobs evaporated. Once-flourishing estates were abandoned. Famine became a fact of life. Floods covered the city three or four times a century. Sewers and aqueducts needed repair.

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