Rector's Ramblings April 17, 2019
This week’s fire at Notre Dame cathedral was a shock. I was in a meeting at the church when I heard the news. As I pulled up the news on my phone, it was literally a jaw-dropping moment. I immediately felt a wave of emotion overtake me. Having been to the cathedral twice in my life, most recently to share the experience with my children, I know the value it holds as a religious and also architectural treasure. Like many around the world, it was heartbreaking for me to consider that the cathedral might cease to be.
Similarly, I share in the joy of millions as we learn that the cathedral seems to have fared well, all things considered. The iconic stained-glass windows are still intact, as are the walls and many artifacts that weren’t touched by the fire. It turns out that the centuries-old architecture did exactly what it was designed to do; allow the roof to burn without severe damage to the structure. The initial photos looked so terrible as the tinder-dry wood that made up the roof burned, I simply feared the worst. If I had remembered my Ken Follet series, Pillars of the Earth, about the building and generational care of cathedrals, I would have remembered the nature of a sacrificial roof system.
I was also struck by the paradox that exists around such structures. On one hand, we are reminded that losing a church building (or any building) does not mean the community is gone. Churches are people, first and foremost, and even if a building ceases to exist, its people will see the mission carried on. I knew in those first moments that if Notre Dame fell, the people of Paris and France, and those around the world who have been touched by her ministry, would carry the spirit into the future in some form. Indeed, the outpouring of pledges to help rebuild shows that very thing to be true.
That leads to the second reaffirmation. Although buildings don’t matter on one hand, they still matter a great deal on the other. Our religious spaces carry a great deal of significance in our lives, some more than others. Notre Dame has few peers in terms of its significance as a religious space. Millions upon millions have prayed in her walls over the centuries; historical events have taken place under the roof that now lies charred on the nave floor; the building itself has become a true thin place where it seems heaven and earth are barely separated. The question about whether to rebuild was an easy one, I have no doubt. Notre Dame’s witness to the world and the symbolism it offers a city and a nation is worth every penny they will spend on it.
This was an odd reminder for me about the work we’re doing to address our spaces at Christ Church. The meeting I was in when I heard the news about the fire was a capital campaign meeting with our consultant. The very next day, we had a Vestry update from our building committee and capital campaign team. The Vestry is still working carefully and deliberately to discern what God is calling us to do in this regard. More details will be coming in May, but it certainly got me thinking about the meaning and purpose of buildings. They are not the end all and be all of a parish, but they matter a whole lot, too. Imagine this Island without Christ Church and its people, shaped and motivated by worship and formation within her walls? Imagine too, what will happen if and when “the big one” hits, or if the prognostications about sea level rise come to fruition? If the building isn’t here, does Christ Church cease to exist? Certainly not! God forbid we ever have to experience a Notre Dame moment, but if we do, we will carry on and rebuild if it’s feasible. It’s too important to too many. Buildings are extensions of our mission and ministry, and as such, they hold a special place in our lives over generations.
I am hoping and praying that the inspections of Notre Dame demonstrate that it can be rebuilt, perhaps even better built. I also hope we see in this event a glimpse of hope. If you saw the image from the interior of the nave after the fire had been extinguished, you may have seen the pile of timbers smoldering in the foreground while the cross hung, undamaged, over the high altar at the crossing. It is the Gospel in miniature; the darkness does not overcome the light. Ever. The Gospel message is also one of hope and the assurance that with God all things can and are being made new. May it be so.
Almighty God, to whose glory we celebrate the dedication of this house of prayer: We give you thanks for the fellowship of those who have worshiped in this place, and we pray that all who seek you here may find you, and be filled with your joy and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.