Burning Buildings and a Hole in the Ground
“I am watching almost 1000 years of history go up in smoke.”
That’s how one distressed reporter described the scene yesterday as she watched a fire tear through the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. I’ve never visited the cathedral, but I too had a visceral reaction to the sight of flames engulfing the massive gothic structure. I’ve replayed the video of its majestic spire collapsing through a hole in the roof several times now, each time wanting to disbelieve it. It doesn’t seem like this should be able to happen.
Construction on the cathedral first began in 1163. That’s over 350 years before the Protestant Reformation got underway! In the centuries since, the building has witnessed – even housed – major historical events. King Henry VI of England was crowned King of France there (my guess is you are already googling that one). Napoleon Bonaparte was named Emperor there. Joan of Arc was officially declared a saint there. Along the way, the building has come to be regarded as one of the great architectural marvels of the world. It is a focal point of art, culture, politics, religion, and history, which explains why more than 13 million people visit it every year. Something that grand, that massive, that substantial, and that historical shouldn’t be able to go up in smoke in a few short hours. And yet it did.
All sorts of lessons and analogies will be drawn from this event. Some will no doubt draw a comparison between the devastation of Notre Dame and the demise of Christianity in Europe. Once the breadbasket for western Christendom, Europe in general, and France in particular, is now a center for secularism and humanism. Apart from its value as a cultural artifact, some may wonder what need France has for such a massive cathedral. (I, for one, find it subversively appealing that one the central structures in the heart of Europe is still a church building!)
Others will, appropriately, use this event to remind us that nothing made with human hands will stand forever. When I was in seminary at Duke Divinity School, a professor once pointed to the beautiful Duke Chapel, which as a neogothic structure is built in a similar fashion to Notre Dame. He said, “Yeah, we built this thing to make it look old. We want to give the impression we’ve been around a while.” But that’s all it is – an impression. The Bible is painfully clear that we humans are only a mist or vapor. Psalm 103:15-16 declares, “The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.” Those words are true for us and for the cathedrals we build.
But the thing that stands out most in my mind about yesterday’s fire is that it happened during Holy Week. This is the week when Christians all over the western world recall the events of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection (Orthodox Christians will observe Easter a week later). These are not only the central events of our faith; they are the central events in history. If what we believe about this week is true – that is to say, if these things really did happen – then it literally changes everything throughout the universe. It means that everything we think we know about life, including suffering, sorrow, and death, has been turned upside down. Easter means nothing is what we thought it was. How ironic that while Christians are preparing to celebrate that announcement, one of the most recognizable religious structures in the world burns almost to the ground.
Yet maybe that fact gives us opportunity this week to go back to the heart of our faith. The substance of what it means to be Christian isn’t found in buildings or denominational structures or organized programs or any of the other tangible things we can identify and label. To be sure, all of these are important (if they aren’t, then I am out of a job), but none of them were around on that first Easter Sunday. The only thing that marked that moment was a large stone moved back from the entrance to a previously occupied tomb. I forget where I first heard it, but someone once said the Christian faith traces its origins through the twists and turns of history all the way back to an empty hole in the ground somewhere in the middle east, because the guy who was in it on a Friday wasn’t there on a Sunday.
Things, even important things, may be burning down around us. Marriages, friendships, careers, health, dreams – even these things are subject to the eroding forces of life in a broken world. If the permanence of a massive 850-year-old gothic cathedral can’t be guaranteed, neither can ours. However, against that backdrop comes the stunning announcement: “He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. (Matthew 28:6)”