Watching the fire consuming the roof of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris on the evening news aroused a feeling of horror and helplessness. Would the whole building be consumed? Would priceless treasures from 850 years of history be lost? Would beautiful works of art and sculpture be destroyed? News in the aftermath provided hope that at least some elements could be preserved or restored.
More personal for many was the awareness that this cathedral was a working church, a place where children were baptized, marriages celebrated, departed loved ones remembered. And it was a cathedral not just of a particular parish, but of the nation of France, holding the place of sacred space for the crowning of monarchs, the celebrating of deliverance in war, and the mourning of national leaders. The loss of this place as it was threatens the precious memories of what was celebrated and remembered there.
These thoughts and feelings captured on a grander scale what other congregations have gone through, even recently, as three African-American churches were burned down in southern Louisiana, allegedly set afire by a young white man. The sanctuaries were St. Mary Baptist in Port Barre, as well as Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist in Opelousas.
These three churches each carried over 100 years of memories. One parishioner, Monica Harris, said, “Seeing the church in the condition it is now, it’s almost like losing a family member.”
The fact that the Notre Dame fire occurred on Monday of Holy Week added to the tragedy. This is the high point of the church year, when Christians remember the last week of Jesus’ life on earth, stretching from Palm Sunday through the Last Supper, praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, enduring the trials and torture, his crucifixion, burial, and finally, triumphantly, his resurrection from the dead. There would have been services of worship scheduled for every day, with hours-long remembrances on Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Now, where will the people worship?
In the midst of the tragedy, in the providence of God, perhaps we are to focus on the oft-repeated cliché that the church is not the building, but the people. As the Rev. Harry J. Richard, pastor of Greater Union Baptist Church, put it, “They burned down a building. They didn’t burn down our spirit.” The building is destructible, but the people of God is eternal. In fact, Jesus said the very gates of hell could not prevail against the Church.
On Good Friday, we remember how Jesus gave his body to be put to death for all of humanity, to reconcile us to God. We cannot fathom the immensity of the gift. Yet his spirit remained, and was endowed with a new, resurrection body for a new, eternal existence as the ever-embodied Son of God and Savior of the World. Church buildings can suffer destruction, but the Spirit of Christ can remain in the community of God’s people in that place, ready to be embodied in a new structure that can serve as the ongoing launching place for worship and ministry.
The most essential point of focus for Holy Week, however, is Jesus Christ himself. This week is all about him – what he did, what he said, what he allowed to be done to him. If it were not for the events of this week, there would be no Church, there would be no people of God. In instituting the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (Holy Communion), with the washing of the disciples’ feet, and even with his last words on the cross, Jesus was creating a new family – the family of God. We are joined together by him and because of him. (See the sermon by Fleming Rutledge posted on the Good News website.)
That is why my favorite hymn about the Church is The Church’s One Foundation written by a Church of England clergyman in 1866. It realistically describes the Church in all her glory and in all her fallenness. Through it all, Christ is the single foundation of the Church, for
She is his new creation by water and the Word.
From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride;
With his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died.
Far from being narrow or parochial, the Church is
Elect from every nation, yet one o’er all the earth.
This universal reach was seen in the outpouring of faith and sorrow by the internationally diverse crowds in Paris and condolences from around the world. The Church is a global community of faith encompassing every nation, race, gender, and language.
At the same time, the hymn is realistic in seeing the struggles of the Church.
Though with a scornful wonder we see her sore oppressed,
By schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed,
Yet saints their watch are keeping; their cry goes up, “How long?”
And soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.
We long for things to be set right according to God’s perspective, and we grow weary of the struggle and impatient for God to act. But S. J. Stone, the hymn writer, encourages us that after the night of weeping comes the morn of song. On Good Friday, we remember that Easter Sunday is coming. God will make all things right once again.
She waits the consummation of peace forevermore;
Till, with the vision glorious, her longing eyes are blest,
And the great church victorious shall be the church at rest.
We press on to one hope, “with every grace endued.” In the midst of the struggle, in the midst of the uncertainty, in the midst of the disappointment, in the midst of what seems like death, the Father pours his abundant grace out upon his children. We are sure, not of what we have, but of what we hope for. We are certain, not of what we see, but of what we do not see (Hebrews 11:1).
We walk by faith, not by sight (II Corinthians 5:7), trusting that after death comes resurrection, believing God’s promise that he will never leave us or forsake us, whether the denomination divides, the church building burns down, or whatever in life we might experience. It is this hope, this faith, this certainty, that gives us confidence to face each day, not standing on our own powers and abilities, but built together by faith on the one foundation that can withstand all – Jesus Christ, our loving Lord.