Notre Dame will rise again: A church and the resurrection

I completely empathize with those who are despairing over the extensive damage to Notre-Dame de Paris, just as I understand those who, at the cross, failed to see the resurrection.

By Mike O’Neill, NCF New York

The death of those we love, and the destruction of the things we hold precious, is painful.

Notre Dame stands at the heart of Paris, and the heart of French life. Simultaneously a symbol of the church, and the nation. Whether one is a person of faith, or not, the cathedral is an enduring expression of resurrection. Over the centuries, it has survived many attacks and served many purposes, not always spiritual. Yet Notre Dame adapts and reinvents itself to continue sharing the gospel.

I recall many visits to Paris. I was moved by the cathedral’s island location, the soaring ceilings, the inexplicable peace, and, of course, the “roses.” The beauty of the rose windows was the perfect execution of the artist’s vision. How could someone stand inside Notre Dame and not sense the divine as the sun illuminated the glass? More than 700 years have passed since many of the windows were installed and the roses continue to beckon the visitor inside to experience God. They are a beautiful metaphor for the Christian faith. Thankfully, many of the windows have survived.

During my more recent visits, notably after becoming a believer in Jesus, I enjoyed exploring the Bible through the art, architecture, and stonemasonry. Every aspect of the cathedral was both artistically and functionally inspiring. Those responsible for the design and construction of the cathedral were both artist, and artisan, like the workers on God’s temple in Exodus 31, whose skill was empowered by the Holy Spirit.

At a time when the poor could not read, Notre Dame itself “spoke” the wonders of the Bible and how the gospel bridges the injustice of poverty in its call to serve the poor and marginalized. Clearly, the outpouring of affection and support for Notre-Dame de Paris after the fire is a testament to the enduring ability of a cathedral to express the reality of God in a changing culture.

As the fire burned, many in the media spoke of the enormous additional pain this fire would cause Christians during Easter week. But while I share the global cries of pain over the extensive damage, I know that the proximity to Good Friday and Easter Sunday does not cause more pain. It stirs great hope. For the believer in Jesus, the darkest moments are but shadows in the brilliance of the resurrection.

For the believer in Jesus, the darkest moments are but shadows in the brilliance of the resurrection.

Good Friday does not define us; it’s a bridge to the resurrection and the hope of new life. Oddly, the images of Notre Dame, after the fire, remind me of the churches in the American Midwest, who, after a tornado, gather plastic garden chairs and worship in the rubble, of Chinese house churches meeting in secrecy without any permanent structures, and Egyptian Coptics continually filling their churches though they are relentlessly bombed while the world seems oblivious. Notre Dame will rise again.

While Notre-Dame de Paris was still in flames, generosity brought hope of a resurrection. Make no mistake, the astounding sums pledged in the early hours will not be enough, especially if efforts are to be undertaken according to the timetable set forth by President Macron. But they have served to inspire a nation, and people around the world, to the hope of a form of resurrection.

France has intentionally been creating a secular state, and, arguably, many western nations are increasingly secular. Perhaps in a climate where many don’t want to look to God anymore, there is still an innate desire to connect with the Creator, and a building such as Notre Dame brings a comfort for those who don’t want God all the way removed from their lives.

In a sign of the times in which we live, the very first pledge came from a couple who hold French, American and Mexican citizenships. Notre Dame will be rebuilt, and – as President Macron so brilliantly identified – it will be built on the back of a global fundraising campaign.

As the Easter season continues (this week is Holy Week in the orthodox churches), and the hope of the resurrection remains, we ought not be in despair – not for Notre Dame, and not for Jesus – because we understand the resurrection. The hope we share should stir in us a generous response to our neighbor, wherever in the world they may be, and despite the circumstances in which they live. Like Notre Dame’s reconstruction will be, the Great Commission of our resurrected Savior has always been, a global vision.

The challenge of balancing a secular icon, quasi museum, and place of worship will always be great. Personally, I’m not bothered by the notion that Notre Dame may emerge with a stronger secular voice post reconstruction. But, as the building itself is resurrected, I am praying for a revival in the church community that calls it home. Imagine the possibilities of sharing the gospel in a building that demonstrates resurrection and attracts a new phase of interest from around the globe!

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