Last weekend I visited Ely, a tiny little market town in England with a huge cathedral. It is a richly beautiful place, begun in 1081 and refurbished and added to by each successive generation of Christians since. There is a wealth of stories to be told about the cathedral, but I was particularly struck by the Lady Chapel. This was the chapel dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus, in 1349. Originally, it was a huge, brilliantly painted room, the walls carved delicately in intricate bas-reliefs, the high windows filled with the best stained glass there was.
Then came Henry VIII and the stripping of the monasteries. In 1541 all the windows were smashed, the paint stripped from the walls, the statues destroyed, and the heads of all the figures carved on the walls broken off. It is, of course, impossible to gauge the mindset of the men who smashed this chapel; perhaps they were sincerely afraid of the dangers of idolatry, and only wanted to save souls. However, it is hard to sympathize with those who would destroy beauty that has been made for the glory of God, no matter how misguided its use.
The chapel hasn’t been restored, besides the new clear window glass put in to keep out the elements. The figures on the walls are still headless, the statue niches are still empty, and the windows still naked of stained glass. Compared to the rest of the cathedral, which is filled with color and decoration, the tall chapel seems very bare. Only one new statue has been put in, one flame of color in the bleached room: at the front of the chapel stands a depiction of Mary. This is not an ordinary Victorian depiction of the young woman, however; she is not the meek, demure girl with downcast eyes and a shy face. This Mary has flung her arms into the air, rejoicing that she will be the mother of her Lord. This is the Mary who risked being ostracized for bearing a child not her fiancé’s in a world that was very hard for an unmarried woman; this is the Mary who sang with joy of the power of God to overthrow the mighty and powerful and raise up the poor and the weak. This is a bold and joyful Mary, who trusts God enough to rejoice in his works. And it is very appropriate that this statue should stand in the middle of the destruction of the Lady Chapel. It reminds us of one woman who had to stand and watch as her world crumbled around her, as her firstborn son was executed as the worst of criminals, as God’s promise of redemption seemed to come to nothing. And it reminds us that after this destruction of hope there came, incredibly, victory out of death; and Mary rejoiced once more.