Reflections on the Cathedral of Notre Dame

As Holy Week began, this week, we watched the burning of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris with a sense of disbelief.

The fire began after 6:20 p.m., Paris time, and quickly spread throughout the church. The raging inferno consumed the entire building for several hours. Footage of the fire was broadcast across the world and many watched as the historic spire and roof collapsed. As the fire smoldered, worshipers gathered around the area singing hymns, such as Ave Maria, as a way to mourn what was taking place. We assumed, in the early moments of the fire, that all was lost.

In the days since the fire, we have learned that may not be the case. Many of the cathedral’s historic artifacts are able to be preserved. Some had already been taken off site due to an ongoing renovation project. Others, such as the Crown of Thorns, were removed during the fire. Even still, some relics, glass windows, and the cross and altar area were seemingly untouched by the flames.

Plans are underway to rebuild the cathedral. French President Emmanuel Macron discussed the nation’s desire for the church to be rebuilt. Leaders and others from around the world have committed upwards to $1 billion dollars (880 million euros) to restoration efforts after the fire.

The fire and the store of the Cathedral of Notre Dame has captured our attention this Holy Week. And, perhaps, rightly so.

For one, the church has a historic place in Western Civilization and culture. The 800-year old church has stood as one of the most iconic elements of the Paris skyline and is the site of some of the world’s most famous pieces of architecture. Even when it was nearly abandoned during the French Revolution, the site stood as a witness of hope in troubled times. So much so, that when German dictator Adolph Hitler gave orders, at the end of World War II, for his army to demolish the cathedral German soldiers, instead, preserved the building from destruction.

As well, the cathedral stands as one of the oldest churches in the world and, perhaps, one of its most recognizable. It is not the oldest. That honor goes to the Church of the Nativity in Israel, but its historic standing reminds us that the church, and its people, have given witness to God’s love throughout the generations. This Middle Ages structure of faith is a testament to how the people of God have been present and how we stand upon their shoulders.

Yet, we are captivated by the story of the Cathedral of Notre Dame because churches matter. Now, let me predicate that by saying that the church is not the focus of the mission. The focus of the mission is on the people and the community of faith. That doesn’t mean, however, that churches do not have an importance and place in the worship of God.

When I drive home to Shady Spring, W.Va., I have to pass Perry Memorial United Methodist Church. Every time I see the church, I am reminded of pastors who have preached there, people who have loved me, and moments of joy that bring a smile to my face. Those same emotions come as I pass by communities I’ve served or walk into my office and the sanctuary here at Ogden Memorial. We all have those same or similar emotions when we walk into our church. The church, as a building, gives a place for these holy moments to transpire.

We mourn the fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame, because it reminds us of our connection to our community of faith. Of how, we are gathered as a community to a specific place to give worship to God. We are sent out from that place to extend love and peace with the people we meet through our actions that are reflective of our worship. Churches give us a sending point for mission and ministry.

Perhaps, as well, it is ironic this fire occurred during Holy Week. This is a time in which we are mindful of the events surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection. The fire is a symbolic and real reflection upon death and destruction. Within the fire, though, there are signs of hope and redemption, such as the pieces saved, places that can be rebuilt, and the opportunities for something greater to come. These are signs of the resurrection of God doing something amazing out of what seems lost and forever damaged.

A church, a building, a historic structure, gives us that place for reflection this week. So, it is appropriate that on this Holy Week we have been taken up by the situation in Paris. It has given us a reminder that even when it seems like everything is destroyed, God’s grace tells us that there is always hope.

Hope that is found even within a church building.

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The Embrace of Jesus

On a bookshelf in my office is a new decorative piece that I received in Jerusalem. It is an olive wood carving of Jesus.

It is not the only such carving that I have in my office, but this one is different. When you look at it, the first thing you notice is Jesus embracing two children as he is sitting down. One child is cradled near his neck and likely a young toddler. The other is a young girl, perhaps no older than my own child, who is standing and brought in close to Jesus.

Of course, when you see the carving, your mind goes to the story in the Gospels when Jesus is confronted by his own disciples for welcoming children into his care. Children, in those days, were not to approach religious teachers until they reached a certain age, and a child approaching Jesus would have been unheard of and unacceptable. Jesus has other ideas, and says, “let the little children come to me.” (Matthew 19:14, NIV) Jesus is accepting and welcoming of children.

We know this. We celebrate it by singing “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” Perhaps that might be all you think about if you looked at the carving. But beyond that, I’m drawn to Jesus’ arms when I look at it on the shelf.

His arms are embracing and welcoming, and they bring in those society has discarded as unwelcome. There is more to the carving, and perhaps more to Matthew 19:14, than just the idea of welcoming children to the church and making sure they are part of Sunday School, worship, and children’s activities.

I cannot help but think of how the same arms that lift up a toddler and a young child in a warm embrace, also bring in the least of these and the unwanted in our own time. Jesus’ words of welcome to the children are not limited to those who have yet to reach a certain age. It is also extended to the people who live upon society’s margins.

In Jesus’ time, you would be hard pressed to find just one group that lived on the margins. There were the poor who lived in the same communities Jesus traveled through, who barely had enough money to provide food for their families. There were the religious outcasts – women, Gentiles, and others – who were not allowed to worship with the entire community. There were people who were discounted simply for where they lived or what had occurred in their lives.

Each of these groups of people, Jesus routinely welcomed… to the consternation of both the religious elites and his own disciples. The embrace of Jesus is wide and welcoming to the very people society says “no” to including.

Our participation in the life of Christ calls us to have the same embracing attitude of society’s outcasts and undesirables as Jesus does. The embrace of Jesus calls us into society’s margins to share the love and hope of Christ to the least of these. It also calls us to go into places of power and privilege, to the communities that believe they have no need of the God of holy love, and to express the truth of God’s hope.

The call to live like Jesus is one that brings us into places we are not always comfortable with going. Our invitations of welcome and care, in the life of the church universal, are often limited to those we find acceptable and approachable. We are often more comfortable with reaching people who are “like us” and desire churches to be filled with only like-minded individuals. We do this to the detriment of true discipleship and the embrace of Jesus.

Living like Jesus takes us into areas where we might be uncomfortable and requires us to live with arms wide open. What often holds us back is our own fear of what may happen, our biases, and, ultimately, our own trepidation of truly living like Jesus. When we allow fear to consume us, our embrace is limited and our arms do not fling open as wide as we see Jesus’ arms do.

I cannot help but ponder how we might be called to reflect upon this as we approach Holy Week on Sunday. The message of Jesus’ death and resurrection cannot be just Good News for those who sit comfortably in the pews of the sanctuary. It must also be Good News for the poor, forgotten, and unwelcomed of society.

Perhaps as we go to the cross with Jesus, we need to contemplate how truly embracing the church, as a whole, can be towards those society does not accept. Perhaps we also need to contemplate our own contribution to those situations in our own limited welcome and embrace of others.

As we do, we need to consider the hope of the resurrection that announces God is doing something new in the world. Something new and amazing – not just for me. Something new and amazing – not just for you. Something new and amazing – not just for those who sit in the pews of the church. But truly, something new and amazing for the poor, the forgotten, the outcast, the shunned, and the unwelcome.

The hope of this season is that Jesus’ arms are flung wide open with love for everyone. We get to share that good news.