I’m writing in the aftermath of the fire that almost destroyed Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. I was deeply moved by the scenes on television – the harrowing pictures of the fire, and the responses of Parisians as they gathered and watched and grieved and prayed.
We’re used to hearing that the Church is not the building, but the Church is the people. That is true, but a building such as Notre-Dame, or even Otley Parish Church, comes to represent the history of the people over centuries.
It was extraordinary how everything changed when news came that the basic structure of the cathedral was sound, and confidence was expressed that it could be rebuilt. It would rise again. Many have commented on the timing of the fire in Holy Week, and how it resonates with the grief and pain that we feel with Christ as he journeys towards the cross. And with the hope of resurrection.
Trust in his Father’s purposes, and the hope of resurrection, undoubtedly sustained Jesus through his pain and suffering. The resurrection is his personal vindication. For us who know the story, we read it knowing he will rise from the dead, and yet his suffering is almost unbearable to read. We feel in a human way for the betrayed Jesus, the one smeared with lies and half-truths as the fickle crowds are manipulated against him.
But we believe much more has been achieved than Jesus’ personal vindication. The bigger story is that Jesus’ suffering was the means of overcoming sin and death – the two big barriers to God’s kingdom coming, when all creation is healed and reconciled to God.
There is no easy explanation for any suffering, let alone the appalling pain we know has been, and is being, endured by many in our world. But we can trust that somehow it is unavoidable, as Christ’s suffering is: a result of the cosmic struggle against evil, injustice and all that stands against God’s good purposes for the world. We have seen the heart of God in Jesus, and so we know that suffering here “wrings with pain the heart of God”, but darkness and evil must have its hour before it is overcome (Luke 22:53).
Parisians now live in the hope and trust that Notre-Dame will rise again. Christians live in the hope of the resurrection. For those who suffer today, the God we meet in Christ knows all about suffering. Jesus’ experiences forsakenness as he cries from the cross, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”
The burning of Notre-Dame Cathedral is causing much heart-searching about why it it so significant to a country so militantly secular. Our hope is that many will be led to recognise they are part of a bigger story, a story that cannot be told in bricks and mortar but only by connecting to God who is the foundation of everything.
Emmanuel Macron, the French president, vowed to rebuild the cathedral in five years and make it better, more beautiful. The foundations and walls appear to be secure so the inside and roof can be replaced, and the cathedral will rise again. This seems to me to be powerfully symbolic for the wider Church. The Church built on the foundation of Jesus Christ. St Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter three:
10 By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved – even though only as one escaping through the flames.
16 Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives among you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.
The foundation must always be Jesus Christ. The walls stand for the essential truths of the Gospel that do not change from generation to generation. But on this foundation, and within these Gospel walls, the Church can be rebuilt, and needs to be rebuilt, for each generation.
Across the world we know that the Church works differently in different cultures. And our cultures change over time. Culture is “the way we do things here”. And the way we do things changes.
It’s not always easy to discern what in the Church is cultural and can change and what is eternal and must not change. But that is our task as we seek new ways to engage people with the Gospel.
The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!