By Fr. Jonathan Filkins
How remarkably coincidental the Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris was so severely damaged during this period Christians call Holy Week; the days leading up to Easter Day.
The skies of the storied French city were filled with smoke and fire as the wooden roof, so vast in construction as to be called “The Forest,” was consumed. Disconsolate commentators opined of the tragic loss of the building and its contents, and remarked of the centuries’ long labors; beginning in the twelfth and thirteenth. The local populace gathered in sorrow, some praying and singing hymns, as the edifice was consumed.
Remarkably, some would say miraculously, after the embers were diminished, it was soon discovered that much of the Cathedral is intact. The stone exterior remains; the towers stand, with their enormous bells intact. Long cherished articles and mementos have survived and been removed to safety; the Cross on the High Altar was agleam; even the wooden pews remain. While there is significant damage, there have been immediate commitments to rebuild and restore.
We have been told the construction of Notre Dame, translated to “Our Lady” in English, was designed to not only provide a place of worship to God, but also to convey the power of man’s hand and authority. To this end, over the ensuing centuries, soaring vaults and buttresses were designed, the “Gothic Style” perfected, great spaces formed to awe all those who visited, and vast quantities of art installed. Yet, in spite of all of these efforts, with the centuries’ brightest minds relegated to the care of one of Christ’s churches, we observe an abject failure.
Of course, there will be a lot of finger pointing as to the causation of the conflagration in the coming days. Some may suspect a conspiracy; others an accident of some sort. Perhaps some will say it was an act of God for our corruptions, or arrogance. It does not change the reality. Poor planning, lack of a fire suppression system, and response delays all contributed to the carnage.
When now looking up inside the Cathedral, there is a great void in the roof where the Spire once stood. Through this space, you can see the night sky, in all its brilliant, Godly clarity. As the creativities of noble artisans attempted to emulate God’s celestial heavens in their efforts upon the ceiling, now gone, we are reminded of several truths. First, no edifice regardless of design or intent will long endure. While we may repair, or even replace, our constructions will fail. Secondly, our designs and constructions cannot begin to equal those of our Creator, as they fall well short. Consider a painted sky versus the “real thing.” Lastly, the very source of even our most limited creations is not found within ourselves.
It will be very easy to lament the loss of the physical substance of Notre Dame Cathedral and to let it overshadow the loss of a Church of God; albeit temporarily. The congregants of this church, who we should remember in our prayers for strength, now must look elsewhere for worship and will soon discover the lack of familiarity in being somewhere else. However, their God, being ours, is not limited to some building, or some inconvenient corner in a foreign land. As Christ is always present for those in Paris, he is equally as present for us; no matter the depths of the sorrows, or joys. Let us note that any church is just an empty building, without practicing Christians. Accoutrements do not a church make. If we consider it to be otherwise, then we are relegating our ministrations to being a museum for the spiritually dead.
Tomorrow will be the joyous time to celebrate the glorious Resurrection of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, rising into Heaven. His humiliation to become one of us, to suffer and die for us, and to ascend to Heaven to await our joining Him forevermore, exceeds the power of anything we may achieve, or design. We may aspire to perfection, but there is only one who achieves it. Our worship, of Him, is the ultimate edifice and construct we, by the grace of God, may truly accomplish in our fleeting time on earth.