Easter Lessons from Notre Dame
On Holy Monday just before Easter one of the most beautiful and beloved church buildings on earth, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, caught fire and was severely damaged. Spires, woodwork, masonry, and priceless artwork of a nearly nine-hundred year old cathedral are now a pile of ash.
That Monday morning groups of Christians gathered all throughout Paris to observe their church being swallowed up by the flames. As they watched they did what was most natural for any gathering of Christians to do. They sang hymns and prayed and praised God for His eternal love and mercy.
They knew as we know today that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead and that death no more has dominion over Him. They knew that the true Church of God is not a building. The true Church is the fellowship of believers born and fed by the water and blood both flowing from Christ’s crucified and risen side. They knew that this Church will live on for all eternity. Not fire, not persecution, not sin, not death, not even the devil himself can destroy the Church that Christ built when the temple of His body was destroyed on the cross and risen up three days later. Believers in Christ are now and always will be His risen and glorious and victorious and indestructible Church.
Even when times are tough and we’re tempted to forget: when our church buildings are on fire, our memberships are shrinking, our Church family is suffering, and we’re not sure how much longer we’ll last, the Church always has God’s Word to tell us once again that Christ is risen and we are risen in Him. “Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive [1 Corinthians 15:20-22].” God’s Word reminds us that even when all the works of man go up in flames believers in Christ are the Church because we have been made alive by His resurrection, we have been set free from every chain of sin and death, we are a new creation that death cannot quench, we are a shining light that no darkness can overcome.
There was another response to the Notre Dame fire that is worth noting. Soon after the fire began and even before the damage could be fully assessed Christians, and actually a few wealthy non-Christian citizens as well, began to donate money in order to the rebuild the beloved church to its original beauty. Some Christians, of course, protested this plan saying that the donated money, which ended up being hundreds of millions of dollars, would be better spent on the poor. There is no doubt that the money spent on the poor is money well spent. However, we should also recognize the value that beautiful church buildings have for our faith. Dr. Peter Scaer of Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana posted the following on Facebook with regard to the rebuilding of Notre Dame: “Build beautiful churches, attend them, and cherish them. Build beautiful churches not because God needs such a house, but because their beauty reminds us of God’s presence, of His love. Use stained glass, include fine paintings, icons, and statues. Build beautiful churches, not boxes. Build beautiful churches, not auditoriums with stages and coffee houses. Build beautiful churches to express the beauty of our Lord. And if they should burn down, rebuild them. And then fill them up with your presence, with your prayers and songs, with God’s Word, with baptismal waters, with altars offering up body and blood. These are the things that make a church truly beautiful, and the reason we build beautiful churches to begin with.”
A Church that celebrates Easter is a Church that builds beautiful church buildings. It’s a Church that understands what the resurrection of Jesus means to them and who wants to proclaim that message with everything they've got. An Easter Church is a Church who wants to preach Christ risen from the dead in our sermons, but also in our stained glass windows, artwork, statues, crucifixes, vestments, candles, flowers, organs, music, and every square inch of our sanctuaries.
We want the whole world to know that our church buildings are the places where the Church, the congregation of those baptized into Christ, receive and rejoice in and grow into our risen Lord. It’s in those church buildings by Word and Sacrament that the ugliness of sin and death and evil is washed away and Christians are left glowing with forgiveness and joy and freedom and a life that has been risen up above the curse. It’s from there that we take the beauty and joy and freedom and forgiveness and brightness of Christ’s resurrection with us out into the world and draw the world back into Christ.
If you are truly concerned for the poor yes, buy them food to eat and clothes to wear; but also fill the church buildings of the world with beautiful art and architecture and music so that we might preach the riches of Easter morning to the poor in spirit. Even so, never forget the truest beauty of the Church, the one for which even the beauty contained within a building like Notre Dame is no match: Christians who by faith, love, word, and deed display their risen life in Christ for all to see.