As I looked at photos and footage of Notre-Dame wreathed in flames, I couldn’t help remembering what it was like to watch my own church burn down on the morning of June 9, 2007. Our house was on the same block and we spent that Saturday morning watching the blaze from our back yard with friends, neighbors, and fellow churchgoers, all of us filled with shock, grief, and dismay.
No doubt many in Paris and beyond have felt a similar mix of emotions. In fact, those emotions may have been felt even more keenly, given Notre-Dame’s age and cultural importance.
While it’s easy (albeit true) to say that a church is not a building, it’s still painful to watch one crumble before your eyes. Because we’re physical creatures, God uses physical spaces to minister to us and subsequently, we use them to minister to each other. They’re sacred spaces for those most joyous and solemn of occasions, like weddings and funerals. They’re where we gather to hear God speak to us through His word and where we respond with worship and confession. They can fill us with awe and a sense of majesty, remind us of our smallness, and convey theological and spiritual truths.
Some are seeing an especial significance and doom in Notre-Dame’s destruction, given Christianity’s fading presence in an increasingly secular Europe. The fire could be viewed as the end of an era, and I certainly won’t begrudge anyone mourning it as such. But the truth — which can be difficult to accept and believe in the moment — is that God’s Church is not contained within a single building, however beautiful it might be. (And make no mistake, Notre-Dame is a very beautiful building indeed, even after the flames.)
Obviously, nobody knows what all will happen as a result of the Notre-Dame fire. But the God whose people built that glorious cathedral is a God Who loves resurrection and redemption. Like a masterful author writing twists into the storyline, He can take the very worst moments, and instead of leaving them as they are, use them as the means to bring about a greater good than could have been imagined or achieved beforehand.
Not to be glib, but it feels strangely appropriate that this fire happened during Holy Week. Christians around the world gather for Good Friday and remember history’s darkest moment — when the Son of God was rejected and killed by humanity and, taking our place, absorbed the full measure of God’s wrath and judgement in our stead. And yet, we call it Good Friday because it was only through that horror that the beauty of Easter Sunday could happen, when Christ rose from the dead, defeating sin, tragedy, pain, horror, and death once and for all.
I’ll spare you any cloyingly “encouraging” phrases about Notre-Dame rising again. Though there has been some good news in the aftermath, and France has announced ambitious plans to rebuild, the loss and damage is still incalculable. And if my church’s fire taught me anything, it’s that there is a time to gather together and mourn what was lost before looking to the future. Doing so is only right and proper.
But my church’s fire, and what came out of it, also reminds me that God’s sense of irony might not be finished with the Church in Paris, not by a long shot — and that beauty can and will emerge from the ruins and ashes in strange and surprising ways.