Burning Churches

I remember singing in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris when on our college choir tour in 1992. Our last note hung in the air as if attached to the high Gothic ceiling as our choir director kept us on cue waiting for the sound to fade. It seemed like ages, but it was perhaps more like 10 seconds. It was a magical moment. We had sung Ave Maria, a fitting song (meaning “Hail Mary,” the first words that the angel Gabriel said to Mary) to sing in the cathedral whose name means “Our Lady” (referring to Mary). I remember thinking that my voice has been added to the countless voices raised in that consecrated structure to bring glory and praise to our God. Besides its spiritual legacy, I was overwhelmed by the sheer size of such a huge church building! Actually, the cathedral is rather small for a medieval cathedral. It was one of the first cathedrals to be built in the newly innovated Gothic style (pointed arches, stained glass windows, and flying buttresses, an architectural style developed in northern France in the first half of the 12th century). Notre-Dame was started in A.D. 1163 but was not completed until A.D. 1345. Over the next few hundred years, the architectural style was pushed to the extreme, until vast cathedrals–one-and-a-half and even over twice its size–were built in Seville, Spain; Milan, Italy; Cologne, Germany; and York, England. Although not as big, Paris’ Cathedral of Notre-Dame is perhaps the most famous of Gothic churches, in no small part to Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and it being a central landmark in the world capital of Paris (Napoleon was crowned emperor there in 1804). It again captured the world’s attention on April 15 when the ancient roof timbers caught fire and the roof and central tower burned…to the horror of the world watching via live feed and videos. I felt like I had a continual “punch to the gut” as the afternoon carried on and the fire consumed the 800-year-old roof. The original timbers were so huge that architects said other materials would need to be used to rebuild the roof because there are no longer hard-wood trees large enough to produce those massive-sized timbers! I was grateful that much of the cathedral was salvaged, and there were stalwart commitments to rebuild the cathedral. Money has poured in-over $1 billion!–from private sources. Then, days later, Easter was still celebrated! Crowds gathered in nearby churches and buildings, and people gathered outside near the cathedral itself. It struck me that the real meaning of Easter is not encapsulated in a polished, perfected worship service held as planned. Jesus’ resurrection was first proclaimed at the site of His grave, and then to a gathering of sorrowful and weeping people. Easter at Notre-Dame this year may be the best proclamation of Easter ever! It is still true, even though the ancient building was closed off. As ashes and debris covered the sanctuary, the proclamation that Jesus is alive still echoed through the streets. In fact, the ruined building my be a better testimony to Easter. When our lives crumble and our dreams burn, Jesus’ resurrection becomes personally important and powerful in our lives: He is the living source of our hope. The French prime minister promised that the cathedral will be rebuilt in five years. It will be a collaborative work seeking to restore not just the historic structure, but also to restore its constant testimony to the living Jesus. Again, this is an Easter proclamation. Jesus comes to us in our defeats, failures, and ruins and brings new life, new beginnings, and new futures. The new building, a blend of old and new, will bear the Easter witness not just to Jesus’ resurrection, but to the transformation that Jesus brings! This message became all the more powerful six days later, on April 22, Easter Sunday, when fires broke out in a different way in churches in Sri Lanka. The news covering Notre-Dame’s fire eclipsed the shocking reports of bombings of Christian churches and hotels on Easter morning. Many were injured and 207 people were killed in fires that exploded as Christians gathered to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection. This time it was not an accident, but an intentional act of terrorism. These explosions are far more tragic than the burning of Notre-Dame, for although heartbreaking, we give God thanks that no one was killed or injured in the Paris fire. They were also more tragic because these attacks were intended to target Christians as they were worshiping on Easter: purposefully targeting Christians, the Christian faith, the Christian witness that the buildings literally stand for, and the Easter message that was being proclaimed. The Easter message was not defeated, however. In fact, it became the source of hope and victory in response to the acts of terrorism. Those who perished did not die in vain, and because Easter is true, the risen Jesus came and took them into eternal glory. Those that are suffering harm and grief have hope, and because Easter is true, the risen Jesus is with them in their suffering and gives them the Holy Spirit as their comfort and peace. The communities and world see that God is real, and because Easter is true, the risen Jesus overcomes the acts of hate and evil and testifies through His people that love will prevail. Easter became all the more powerful because of the bombings! The burning churches, in their grief and destruction, testify all the more powerfully to the living Jesus, who is not defeated, but has overcome all death. No matter what happens to our earthly structures and lives, Jesus’ resurrection is the message of Easter. That may come from a smoldering cathedral layered in ash. It may come from a community huddled and weeping at the scene of an explosion. It may come from churches miles away looking their “Easter best.” But it is the message that is powerful. Jesus is alive, and that means that there is a future: for Notre-Dame, for Sri Lanka, for you and me. Wherever you find yourself this year, whether defeated, grieving, or celebrating, Jesus’ resurrection is the source of your hope and future. Burning churches testify: Jesus is alive!