On April 15th of this week, the world watched in appalled, helpless horror as one of its most beloved landmarks sprang up in flames. The renowned Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris burned for nine hours plus as firefighters labored frantically to save her. Ironically, the building was in the initial stages of a major restoration when a (suspected) electrical short caused smoldering fire, initially undetected, in the roof section. Eight-hundred-and-fifty-year-old timbers provided fuel for a conflagration so rapid and super-heated, simply getting near the blaze was impossible. After valiant, over-night effort, four-hundred firefighters succeeded in quarantining the blaze from completely consuming the building. In an extraordinary moment seared on the memory, the gothic spire was utterly suspended in a pillar of fire before it toppled. Not since the recent carnage of terrorist attacks has an event stirred so much emotional outpouring from its citizens, fellow Catholics and people from every nation who had at one time stepped into her magnificent enclave. The destruction of such beauty was shocking for all, but it’s been a particularly bitter week for the great lady of Paris.
In a supremely strange coincidence, I was in Paris, at exactly this time on Easter Weekend, April 1977. Our High-School tour group spent Good Friday there in the Cathedral for several hours, as Easter services were celebrated. I remember the incomparable thunder of a glorious pipe-organ, choirs, massive leaded windows; the air heavy with beauty. As far as resplendent displays of religious showmanship, it could hardly be equaled. The Cathedral swelled to overflowing with a capacity crowd. It was grand indeed;a singular experience.
While wonderful basilicas and priceless vestiges of Christian religion dot the globe, sadly, they have become the sanctuary archive of holidaymakers and historians more than the seat of an active and thriving ecclesia. The passion poured into their construction by generations past as a tribute and homage to the greatness of God seems frozen in stone. Now, instead of promoting discipleship and devotion, they are curated museum sites to be preserved. What was once the seat of great sacrifice and pilgrimage, a supreme expression of worship and the highest excellence in learning, music, craftsmanship and the arts, is reduced to a mere whistle-stop on the route of tourist buses. Though the light of God still radiates through the stained-glass windows illuminating the Gospel, hearts remain unmoved by the silent testimonial, for the Spirit of God has long departed.
Should the symbols of Christianity hold more of our passionate attention than the justice and judgement that undergirds them? Should we be more moved by the destruction of simple wood and stone, than decades, no, centuries of sexual abuse in the Church, particularly Catholicism and the political enclaves of the Vatican which protect the perpetrators? Does the abject horror and debasement of human trafficking outrage us at the same level of terrorist attacks? And before we get to rhapsodizing, let's acknowledge their inglorious past: the bulk of these monuments were built on the backs of the poor or otherwise indentured.
The Lord has witnessed innumerable towers, spires and even massive pyramids being constructed to gods, kings, human vanity, though He, Himself has commanded only two: the tabernacle, and the temple. Cathedrals, no matter how awe-inspiring, are far lesser to Him than one simple heart, turning away from evil with a humble cry. One prayer, lifted in penitence, still stops all Heaven. When Jesus rose from the dead, and the temple veil split from top to bottom, the separation between men and God was removed. Resurrection was the single-most earth-shattering event of all time. It changed the face of worship. Even the function of the Jewish temple became obsolete. As a believer, your body has now become the sanctuary in which God inhabits. You are the Holy of Holies. He will meet you there, within the deep places of yourself. You are the home He desires to inhabit. The weakness of your frail, human life is the seat of His glory. It’s that simple.
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. Colossians 3:1-3 NIV
Looking around at these ancient edifices, it becomes clear to us, as the saying goes, that “God has no grand-children”. Each generation must find their own connection to the living God amid the turmoil and testing of their times. We may honor the faith of our fathers, but we cannot live in it. When we give more attention and veneration to the works of men’s hands than the presence of God among us, we have lost our way. The symbol is not greater than the substance. Are the citizens of France as appalled at their national loss of faith as they are at the destruction of the Cathedral? One can only hope. Shall any creation have more adoration than the Creator?
Admittedly, I watched with regret as the irreplaceable Notre-Dame burned. May I be as moved at the sight of souls around me needing the love of God as rescue from destruction. If we seek to build something monumental with our lives, it will not be with brick and stone, but with the power of the resurrected Christ within us. Lift up your eyes.
Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, Who has not lifted up his soul to an idol, Nor sworn deceitfully. He shall receive blessing from the Lord, And righteousness from the God of his salvation. This is Jacob, the generation of those who seek Him, Who seek Your face. Selah Lift up your heads, O you gates! And be lifted up, you everlasting doors! And the King of glory shall come in. Psalm 24:1-7 KJV
Image by Bing