The Night the Bombs Fell
It was November 14, 1940. Ike, our friend and host when our family visited England, was in Coventry when incendiary bombs began to fall at 7:20 PM. They kept falling until 6:15 AM, the first concentrated bombing of an industrial city during the Blitz. As we walked through the historical display, Ike told us about the long night which Erik Larson described so clearly in his excellent book, The Splendid and the Vile.
One historical article reports, “A horrific scene of destruction greeted the survivors. Homes and factories were flattened and many buildings were consumed by flames so intense, the city’s sandstone brickwork glowed red.” You can watch a movie of the destruction here. One of the most traumatic sights was the smoking ruins of the Cathedral Church of St. Michael. With roots going back to the 11th Century, it was the only English Cathedral destroyed in the war.
Shortly after the bombing, the cathedral stonemason, Jock Forbes, noticed two charred, medieval roof timbers had fallen in the shape of a cross. He set them up in the ruins where they were later placed on an altar built from the rubble with Jesus’ dying words, “Father Forgive,” inscribed on the Sanctuary wall. Another cross was fashioned from three medieval nails by local priest. The Cross of Nails has become the world-wide symbol of Coventry’s ongoing ministry of peace-making and reconciliation.
Rather than attempting to rebuild the former church, in 1951 the leaders of the Cathedral decided to design a new Cathedral while preserving the remains of the old one as a vivid reminder of the waste of war. The project drew together some of the finest artists, architects, and sculptors of the 20th Century.
Rising out of the ruins, the new Coventry Cathedral was dedicated in 1962. It is a soaring witness to the reconciling love and resurrection power of Christ. Graham Southerland’s Christ in Glory is one the largest tapestries in the world.
But the Coventry story is about more than building a new cathedral; it’s also the story of creating a new people and becoming an ongoing witness for peace and reconciliation.
In his wonderful little book, Fire in Coventry, Stephen Verney told the amazing story of the way preparation for consecrating the the new cathedral became the means by which the Holy Spirit was at work to create consecrated people who would share the love of God is reconciling and life-giving ways. Verney’s summary of the experience speaks a hopeful and challenging word to us:
This is the truth which underlies the Coventry story. The Cathedral was burnt, and out of the ruins sprang new life and the opportunity to rediscover what God really wills the family of his church to be.
Three Cheers for St. Michael!
Approaching the cathedral, it’s impossible to miss the larger-than-life-size sculpture of St. Michael. Based on St. John’s vision of Michael and his angels defeating the power of evil in Revelation 12:7-12, it is the promise that one day God’s self-giving love revealed in Jesus will, in fact, triumph over all the powers of evil, sin and death. We know that in the end, love wins!
I was drawn back to Coventry not only because today is the 80th anniversary of the bombing, but because when our granddaughter, Julia, recently underwent confirmation in the Roman Catholic Church, she chose St. Michael as her own “patron” saint. She wrote:
I chose St. Michael because I like the idea of protection against evil forces, as well as aligning myself with the good in the world. Michael is an example of my life as he represents the constant battle between good and evil, and to always fight for good. St. Michael reminds me of the choices I have to make to keep my own negative energy from overcoming me.
So, on this grim anniversary of the destructive power of evil, cheers (as the British would say) for St. Michael! Cheers for Julia’s example for all of us! Cheers for each of us as we wrestle with the powers of good and evil in our world and in our own lives! And cheers for the resurrection power of God that will one day defeat all the powers of sin and death!