Our Lady in Light of Our Lord
I love history, the power of story, and am moved immensely by connections to our past as humanity and the places and stories that connect us as a human race. As I sat and wept over pictures and videos of Notre Dame burning last night, my sweet, practical, and sometimes unexpectedly profound husband walked into the room and said, “You’ve got to stop watching this.” I replied with a soggy, “It’s just so sad. So much history. It breaks my heart. So many great moments throughout the past thousand years. It means so much to so many people.” Andrew turned to me without a beat and said (I was weepy so this is a paraphrase, but it’s pretty close), “It’s just a building. That’s why we have God. A building can burn. God is eternal. A church is not the point. He is.”
Andrew is right. It is a tragedy that Notre Dame burnt in such a sweeping and devastating way. It is sad and a shame that so much dedicated artistry that was a sacrifice of faith to the Church is now gone, destroyed forever. But, while we can mourn (within reason) the death of such beauty and history, we have to remember that the building is not the point. God is. Jesus made this point over and over during his ministry. In his day the people of God had put all their emphasis on the building/place that was the temple, not the spirit and truth of faith and a life of loving faithfulness to the gracious and eternal God who had saved them over and over and yet loved them through all of their unfaithfulness.
It was during THIS holy week, his last week of ministry prior to his death and resurrection, that Jesus addressed the tendency to love and hold onto the wrong things again: “As Jesus was leaving the Temple, one of his followers said to him, ‘Look, Teacher! How beautiful the buildings are! How big the stones are!’ Jesus said, ‘Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone will be left on another. Every stone will be thrown down to the ground.’” (Mark 13:1-2 NCV) Jesus was not making a threat or being patronizing. He was just stating a fact. This stuff is temporal. It will fail and fall. Jesus’s whole ministry was a lesson in embracing and looking forward to something much more eternal and permanent, more beautiful and sweeping than any building human hands could craft.
We can like and appreciate earthly beauty and significance, but it cannot become our focus and the foundation and forefront of our faith. If that happens we WILL lose faith and be devastated, losing hope, when it fails. The apostle Paul gives us clarity in this in 2 Corinthians 4:8-9, “We have this treasure from God, but we are like clay jars that hold the treasure. This shows that the great power is from God, not from us. We have troubles all around us, but we are not defeated. We do not know what to do, but we do not give up the hope of living. We are persecuted, but God does not leave us. We are hurt sometimes, but we are not destroyed.” If we focus on earthly edifice--its beauty, strength, and durability, humanity will be hopeless, because clay breaks and crumbles. It is frail-- subject to time and weathering and circumstance.
Back to Notre Dame, this picture of soaring wonder and faith-filled art a thousand years in the making. A place firm in our hearts as a history maker, taker, shaker, staker--Henry VI, Joan of Arc, Napoleon, and so many more moments that formed our past. Jesus, ever practical and ever on mission, made it clear-- the building isn’t the point. The faithful actions of an eternal, infinitely lovelier, and holier God and the response of his dedicated people is. Jesus spent his time on Earth ministering to everyone, particularly the least, last, and lost. Psalm 30 says, “Crying may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” That joy, in the light of Notre Dame’s fate, is the realization that while much of the beautiful structure we loved about Our Lady’s Cathedral was destroyed, that our God still stands, will always stand, eternal, beautiful, loving, and active. God’s promise is this: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deut. 31:6 NCV) and “Teach them to obey everything that I have taught you, and I will be with you always, even until the end of this age.” (Matt. 28:20). As Jesus ended his time on Earth, he gave us that promise. He is still with us-- when buildings burn, life and people seem to betray us. He is. Our mission, should we choose to continue it, is to be the living building that brings this hope and heart to each person we meet. That is a building that has truly eternal significance. God is. AMEN!
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