. . . and Holy Week begins with the world turning their eyes to Paris watching in horror as the cathedral of Notre Dame burned. So many friends posted on social media about their heartache with photos from dream vacations. Stories on the news channels considered the tragedy in terms of the loss of irreplaceable works of art and architecture. Callous speculations were offered about causes. Images immediately were shared. Over and over we watched the collapse of the spire as it burned and crashed down into what was becoming the carcass of the church building. There were too many moments when the pictures were communicated by reporters, but we really needed chaplains.
I couldn’t watch the coverage of the fire at Notre Dame without thinking about churches in Louisiana that were burned two weeks ago. Their losses, however, were the results of someone’s hatred. What is shared by people in France and Louisiana is that the sacred spaces of communities of faith have been destroyed. Parishioners in both places hurt over the loss of the places they’ve called home.
A couple of images stand out. Burned Bibles and hymnbooks on the floor of a Louisiana church building. In Paris, with the roof and spire gone, a cross still stood above a building engulfed in flames. And I thought about this Holy Week. We are called on to ponder the way of the cross, and here it was in too overwhelming a snapshot.
I imagine the awe and wonder inspired in worshipers and tourists who got to see Notre Dame. The stained glass windows, the woodwork, the statues and so much more have been destroyed. The cathedral held deep symbolic meaning for many people. But I think especially about the faithful who showed up daily and said their prayers. Their home, a place of beauty, the magnificent attempt of architects and artists to speak of God’s glory, has been utterly destroyed.
The too easy response might be to say, the building is not the church. It’s true, but our cathedrals and sanctuaries become the places we associate with our connections with God and each other. They are places where we experience the holy. We even point to the buildings and call them church. Buildings can be rebuilt, even while mourning the loss of works that cannot be replaced or re-created.
I’ve carried a piece of wisdom for many years now that was blessed to me by Fr. Mario DiLella, Georgia Tech’s longtime Catholic campus minister. As he summarized the church, he told me, “It’s all about the Body.” With the loss of our sacred spaces, the Body of Christ is still very much alive, even though it is suffering. We will hurt with each other, Protestants and Catholics alike.
On Good Friday, we focus on the death of Jesus. Certainly, we must see in the crucifixion the utter destruction of matchless beauty. The cross is agony, pain and horror, but we insulate ourselves from its terror simply saying Jesus died for us. Do we consider the deep reality of that? Watch Notre Dame burn and hear your Savior cry out, “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?”
Jesus calls us to take up our crosses and follow him—to give our whole selves in living and dying for the sake of others. When it comes to loving with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, we don’t get a pass on heartache, pain and indescribable loss. We love as Jesus does, and you can’t really do that without coming to know Jesus and his suffering. Yes, he died for us, but he also dies with us in every moment of our own agony. And we love one another as much as he loved us.