“At Notre Dame, Good Friday Came Early” read the Christianity
Today headline on Tuesday. Good Friday, on Holy Monday, at one of the most well
known Christian cathedrals in all of history. Good Friday, in the form of a
destructive fire, that completely consumed the wooden roof, obliterating its
historic gothic beauty. Good Friday grief, as we watched helplessly while the
spire that had reached to heaven for generations, crumbled into a hellish
The world looked on powerless in disbelief, perhaps with similar feelings to those who looked on in powerless disbelief at Jesus bleeding out and suffocating in agony on the cross.
It was Holy Monday; the day we typically remember Jesus cleansing the Temple in Jerusalem with a whip and holy wrath. Perhaps some wondered if this a form of that holy wrath? Or was this just tragic coincidence? I imagine only the day before; on a beautiful breezy Palm Sunday morning those massive bells rang out as the people gathered for mass. That powerful pipe organ resonating off of the perfectly designed gothic stone vaults and archways. The memory alone of the magical beauty evoking chills of joy to many who had been in attendance. I can’t help but wonder if this is how ancient Hebrews felt in the presence of the Temple in Jerusalem.
I can only speculate and wonder, as I have never been to Notre Dame myself. And yet my eyes welled with irresistible tears and my guts knotted in nausea and horror as I bore painful witness to the descent of that formerly beautiful spire, now skeletal and broken, down, agonizingly, into fiery damnation and death. I sense that my brother captured the perspective well when he pointed out that there is nothing in our own country that could compare with the loss of this 856-year-old holy cathedral. At best we are children in comparison. Children, looking on in helpless horror as this holy place disintegrates into ashes. … Ashes.
Ashes is how we began this journey. Many of us gathered
together in the morning and again in the evening to pause and consider the
fatal, mortal, result of our sinful separation from God’s love and life. Ashes
marked us in the form of a cross, as a reminder to ourselves & the world how
tragic and horrific a cost was paid to restore us. Ashes began our journey
through a season of prayer,
serious contemplation, and self-denial. And now ashes are book-ending that season as an iconic holy place, in the shape of a cross herself, took on her own ashen cross for all to see. Ash and deathly debris that she is probably wearing still today, instead of the trumpet calls & bright gathering throngs celebrating joyful Easter resurrection. Ashes were the beginning. Ashes were not supposed to be the Endgame.
Ashes are grief and sorrow. Ashes were certainly grief and sorrow for our family, as we gathered almost exactly one year ago for opening night of a much anticipated movie – Avengers: Infinity War. I remember scraping by as payday approached & Megan scrounged up enough for all of us to go together on opening night. That movie famously ended in the ashy disintegration death of half the universe’s population. We weren’t prepared. We were traumatized. We haven’t trusted MARVEL Studios since we endured watching our favorite characters disintegrate into ash. And in five days, the Avengers return to the theater for their own Endgame. I don’t think we’re likely to go again on opening weekend. Our hope is that this Endgame will bring new life from the ashes that we’ve lingered in this last year; the confusion, grief, and mistrust. We’ll probably wait. Maybe we’ll be more prepared. Maybe we’re not good enough comic geeks to have understood what was going on in the first place. Tickets are probably sold out anyway as the world flocks to the theater for … I don’t know … more punishment and suffering? … suffering and grief. But it’s just a movie, right?
Many have said, it’s just a church. Sure, it’s old, but it’s just a building. The church isn’t a building. A church is the people, and nobody was killed in the fire. Right? It’s just a building. It’s just a movie. It’s just … Maybe he was just a man. … Maybe it was just three days. … Maybe it’s not just a building. It’s not just a church; not even just a cathedral. Notre Dame de Paris is a symbol. An icon. An anchor, if you will. It is significant. The gravity of Notre Dame, especially in this tragedy, drew together people of all faiths … of no faith … historians, architects, theologians, mystics, authors, tourists, people gathered around her to sing hymns, like “Ave Maria”, in videos that went viral around the world. As she burned, she captured the attentions of a busy world, far too busy for pestering things like church and faith and religion.
Notre Dame burned, and everyone paused. Millions of unlikely people gave witness. Millions of people responded. Prayers were offered. Restoration money was offered. I don’t know what’s happening in that great cathedral this morning, but I know what’s happening around the world because of that great cathedral. People are paying attention. Hearts are softened again. Questions are being asked and conversations are being had. Destruction & death are being considered, but they are being considered through the lens of hope. You see, just like a mighty forest laid low by a sweeping wildfire, new life springs from the ashes; bright flowers and saplings rising defiantly from the ashy grayness of destruction and death. Hope is mighty, and anyone who knows anything about Saint Walker, Hal Jordan, and the Green Lantern Corps can tell you, Hope joined with Will, is the most powerful human force in the universe. Mighty forests grow new trees from the ashes. Mighty cathedrals are rebuilt over the ashes. We … rise above the despair of our own ashes; ashes of destroyed faith, ashes of burned relationships, ashes of disintegrating finances & resources, ashes of grief & loss, ashes of our own selfish & prideful nature … from all of these ashes we can be reborn to new life again – better life – greater life – more abundant and eternal life.
New life springs from the ashes because Notre Dame isn’t just a building, just a church. New life springs from the ashes of our lives because Jesus isn’t just a man. Yeshua bar Joseph of Nazareth in Galilee was a man. He walked the earth in the first century under the rule of an empire that offered peace by the sword and an emperor who claimed to be the son of god. But Yeshua; Jesus, as we more commonly know him, was more than just a man. He was fully a man; a human being in nature, in need, and in life like you or me. But he is also fully God; equal in power and majesty and worthy of worship and adoration with the Father and the Spirit. And because Jesus is fully human AND fully God, Jesus is the only one who’s life, death, and resurrection is sufficient to claim victory over death; victory over our mortal ashes.
Christ is triumphant over death, … sin, … and powers of evil in our world and in our lives! By his own life, death, and resurrection, Jesus destroys death and leaves it in ashes. By taking our place, & leading the way forward, Jesus liberates us from the bondage of suffering, sin, and death that have held humanity captive since the very first fall. We may have begun this season, even our very lives, covered in the ash of death and destruction, suffering and mortality, but we do not end in ashes. Superhero movies may end in the ashes of death, but we do not. Jesus isn’t a fallible, struggling super-hero of our own design. Christ is not discouraged or confused by death as some of our heroes may be. The Eternal Son has the power to destroy death and liberate us from the bondage of its destructive power. The grave no longer holds us. It no longer holds our loved ones. Death has no claim over us, for that ransom has been paid, that victory is won!
I believe that Notre Dame de Paris will rise again. I believe that her spire will once more rise to the heavens. The flaming inferno of death & destruction will not claim her, and she will once again be an anchoring foundation of the faith and a symbol of our enduring strength in the face of a broken and hurting world. Just as our own gothic church endures with it’s beautiful white spire reaching into the heavens above points the people of Greenville to eternal hope. We are stewards of history; stewards of this building; stewards of the Gospel Good News handed down to us; stewards of life, & love, & hope for a world and a community in desperate need.
The first evangelists & preachers of that Good News of New Life were women; Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them (but the men did not believe them). So I am grateful to be part of a denomination and faith tribes who affirm their full equality in that role. I am encouraged to be part of a congregation who embraces the hope of that Gospel Good News for all people, everywhere, no matter who they are. On the same day that Notre Dame de Paris burned, there was also a smaller fire in Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, and in the days before three historically black churches in St. Landry Parish, LA were burned by arson. In each case, hope is springing from destruction. Need is being realized and resources are being directed toward rebuilding. Other places of death & destruction & need are seeing renewed attention. Fears of scarcity are being replaced with the abundance of love. Because fear & death cannot stand in the face of perfect love. Perfect love restores us to new life. New life that springs from the ashes. And we are heirs to that same hope. We are messengers of that hope.
I encourage you to hear the words of Peter from the book of Acts again as he declares that hope in the Gospel of Christ Jesus: You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day … He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
Therefore: Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.
HE HAS RISEN INDEED!