The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris has been badly damaged by fire over the last few days. Pictures from Paris showed people in shock, standing in silence, watching the fire consume this iconic building, powerless to do anything about it. French President Emmanuel Macron captured the mood of the people when he said:
Notre Dame is our history, our literature, part of our psyche, the place of all our great events, our epidemics, our wars, our liberations, the epicentre of our lives….Notre Dame is burning, and I know the sadness and the tremor felt by so many French people. But tonight, I’d like to speak of hope, too. Let’s be proud, because we built this cathedral more than 800 years ago, we’ve built it and, throughout the centuries, let it grow and improved it. So I solemnly say tonight: we will rebuild it together.
These stirring words are reminders of the roles that buildings of faith play in society. They contain a community’s story. They embody a community’s memory. They have around and within them, a community’s past. And, as President Macron says in his speech, Notre Dame embodies part of the national psyche (soul). The tone of the speech also makes it clear that from the destruction of the old will come restoration as they rebuild together. The role that Notre Dame plays to a nation, local churches can play just as powerfully to their local communities: they are places of story, memory, holders of the past and embodiments of the community’s soul. Some churches are so iconic that people who do not attend them will generously dig deep into their pockets to ensure they remain when the building is under threaten.
However, there is something missing in this rhetoric. Notre Dame and all other churches are there as a result of belief in God and in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, events which are being remembered and celebrated over these days of Holy Week and Easter. Yes, Notre Dame is all that President Macron has said, but it is also a place of living faith which is as concerned for a fresh shaping of the future as much as for ‘holding’ the past.
Over these days, Christians focus on events which lie at the heart of faith. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ show God’s love and commitment to creation. They also demonstrate God’s desire to make available to all people a depth and fullness of life that disappointment, betrayal, pain, displacement, disaster and even death cannot destroy. People build churches to worship this God of life and to celebrate life’s fullness.
It is right and proper that buildings of faith have come to play such a significant role within the community for which God has a deep love. But churches and cathedrals would not be there in the first place were it not for the people of faith who built them and the people of faith who currently worship within them. When churches and cathedrals are rebuilt, they should not be built for restoration, which is of no concern to the Christian faith. They should be built for resurrection, for fresh and unexpected life.
Over this holiest week of the year, communities of faith have an opportunity to commit themselves afresh to the God who died and was raised again and to the communities for whom God has a very deep concern. In this way, our churches will reflect the glory of God and show God’s love for all creation.
Bishop Brian Castle
The Second Image is The Crucifixion by Picasso.