Notre Dame burned yesterday.
I haven’t heard an official story as to why, but accident or arson, the result is the same: A beautiful landmark destroyed, and the world in mourning.
I’m in mourning, too, even though I’m not French, not Catholic, and have never even seen the Cathedral except in pictures. It’s still awful to think of more than eight centuries of history going up in smoke, awful to see a masterwork of our ancestors so terribly damaged, awful to see one of the irreplaceable treasures of Europe’s cultural inheritance consumed in ash and flame.
Notre Dame is more than a building, after all. It is more like an anchor for the soul of a continent. In a world constantly shifting and changing, it has been a constant. Through Revolutions and World Wars, her bells continued to ring, undeterred. The loss of her voice now cannot be counted in burned rafters or broken artefacts, it is the loss of a tangible thread to our past, the voices of our mothers and fathers ringing in our ears no longer. Even if she is rebuilt, as I’m sure she will be, she has lost part of herself permanently, and we have lost with her.
We are right to mourn it. We are right to feel this loss. Somehow, the place is part of the identity of Europe, a symbol of our heritage and civilisation. Even worse, the fire raged in Holy Week, when churches ought to be preparing for the most important celebration of the year, Resurrection Sunday.
What will this terrible fire do to Christians?
Not much, really. We will mourn the destruction of a beautiful building, yes. We will feel the absence of this link to our cultural heritage, absolutely. But we will also remember that Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world”. It is not advanced in territory or built in stone, and cannot be destroyed in their destruction. It is advanced instead in true repentance and faith, and built in the hearts of those who trust and obey Jesus as their Saviour and Lord. The beautiful cathedrals that continue to cover Europe are an incredible inheritance, but they don’t make us Christian any more than a Messi jersey would make me a star football player. God’s “city on a hill” is not made of stone, but of people. People who have let their old lives and desires go up in flames because they have found something more precious and indestructible than anything this world can offer. This Sunday, we do not celebrate the beauty of our buildings or our heritage. As we saw yesterday, even the most solid and lasting of those structures can fall. This Easter Sunday, we celebrate a much better inheritance, the gift of Life that no fire can quench.
“For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” – Hebrews 13:14