We returned from an all too short trip up the Rhine River just two days before Thanksgiving. It was our first trip to the mainland of Europe, and like good wine, the memories only get better as they age in our minds and hearts. God willing, we will return there soon, and spend more time among the many treasures we encountered.
Our friends and family members, eager to hear from us about our trip asked us for some tales about the highlights; the places and the people we saw, the scenery, the entertainments, the restaurants and foods we tasted. Honestly we had to reply that all of that was secondary to what impressed us the most. All of our lasting impressions were formed in and around the churches we visited. That isn’t to say that nothing else caught our attention, or that we saw nothing beautiful, spectacular or noteworthy, heard nothing worth keeping in our memory aside from what we encountered in or near the number of beautiful churches and cathedrals we were taken to, or merely happened upon as we progressed through the cities and towns on our way from Amsterdam to Lucerne.
I will remember in heaven, please God, the sound of the church bells I heard ringing in every place we visited all through the day. But, of all, the one I will remember most will be the sound of the great 24 ton bell in St. Peter’s Cathedral in Cologne, itself the largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe. I thought I was hearing the voice of God! Perhaps I wasn’t wrong at that. That building was begun almost a thousand years ago on the site of another church which had been there itself for several hundred years already. It took the better part of 600 years to finish, and is still being worked on.
There have been many stories lately about the “death” of Christianity, or more particularly of Catholicism, in Europe. The Cathedral, logging 20,000 visitors a day, is the most visited building in Germany, and has been for years. While we were there, preparations were beginning for the Christmas market, a tradition all over Europe. We saw them making ready in all of the cathedral squares in all of the towns we visited along the Rhine, and in Holland and Switzerland. Repeating an annual tradition a thousand years old is a sure sign of life to me.
The beauty inside these buildings is simply breathtaking, among most beautiful of all of the artifacts, all of the great art, are the stained glass windows, those magnificent and delicate jewels telling the story of all Creation and man’s Salvation. The artists of the High Middle Ages painted with light in a way that has not been able to be equaled since. Their works move the observer beyond the earth into another kind of world entirely. Experiencing them is like soaring into space and flying through some of the most beautiful and brilliant stars and galaxies; things hundreds, thousands of light years across captured in light and glass and ancient windows.
When I saw the illustrations contained in the book A Medieval Christmas, I immediately recalled the stained glass in the churches and cathedrals I had just seen on our trip. Here, from the same time in history are brilliant and beautiful works of art illustrating the story of Christmas; works of art whose painters and illustrators may well have known what was being done in glass in the great churches all over the continent. Who knows, they may have had a hand in designing some of them themselves.
Our ancestors in the faith loved the Christmas story, the same one we too often seem to try avoiding to pay much attention to, over here. A Medieval Christmas tells us that story with illustrations of a kind our Christian ancestors would have lived with every day. The Christmas Markets in Europe tell me that the love for Christmas there is still alive, larger and more beautiful by far than the billboards in Times Square. We here at The Christian Book Corner love Christmas and the Christmas story, too. We know what it means, and hope that the most beautiful event in history, the birth of Love incarnate will be enlivened in you, too, by use of this most lovely volume which has been, as are all of our selections, especially “Chosen with care; chosen with Prayer.”