Wednesday, August 26, 2009

At the Bridge in Avignon

Avignon, France
From 1305 to 1378, the Catholic Pope resided not at the Vatican, but in Avignon, France. During that time, the French kings held control over the papal selection and activity. But I'll come back to that in a bit...

The bridge in Avignon was started way back in 1177 and completed in only 8 years. Spanning over 3,000 feet, it was considered a marvel of its time. I had to marvel at the image of the bridge ruins, bathed in sunlight and touched by a rainbow this evening. I took the photo attached with my iPhone camera.

Back to the papal thing, it turns out that during this chapter of the church, the Roman Emperor and the Pope were at odds over who was the leader of Christendom in secular matters. It seems that the popes leading just prior to this time enjoyed unprecedented popularity as a result of the successful crusades. Some say that the emperors of the Middle Ages merely served as marshals who existed to do the Pope's bidding. As a result of all this "ruling" the popes were doing, the papal court had to establish all of the governmental practices and procedures of the secular court, leading to a centralized administration under Clement V who was elected at the beginning of the 1300's.

So, would you like to guess what happened? Disaster. The French kings appointed French popes who instituted laws and governed the empire, all under the banner of organized religion. Church leaders lived as princes rather than as clergy. Corruption ruled, which gave birth to a public that despised the faith that these leaders stood to represent. Eventually the church stood on the verge of collapse. In 1378 Pope Gregory XI, a French pope, made the decision to return the papacy to Rome in an effort to bring stability to the land. Unfortunately, the clergy in France disagreed and installed their own popes for the next 30 years. Not helpful.

What do we learn from this? The church is to be like Jesus. Jesus was the King of Kings, but the church is not. History has proven time and again that politics and religion, when mixed together produce a toxic soup. The corruption which comes from power does not stop when a man puts on the priestly robe. Rather, we (church leaders) forget that Jesus came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for all. The papal palace right across the Rhone from where I sit at this moment is gilded in gold and stands as an edifice of control. Jesus got on his knees and washed his friends' feet.

Now, don't get me wrong. The church does, at times, get it right. So do popes and pastors. And they get it right when they let Jesus have all power, authority, strength and honor. And they get it right when they take off garments of earthly control, bend down to the ground and serve others with the love of Jesus.

And when Christians live this way, then, like the Bridge in Avignon, it's enough to make one dance...

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