By Chuck Alley
For more than eight centuries the Notre-Dame de Paris has witnessed indiscriminately to multitudes of people from every nation, language, and creed. From Catholics to humanists, Notre-Dame has been a source of inspiration and awe.
It is a structure that transcends the dimensions of our everyday world. It is a treasure trove of historical and cultural artifacts that provide us with a window through which to view the practices, values, and tastes of previous generations.
In addition, the cathedral is an important and highly recognizable symbol of France, providing both national identity and a magnet for tourism. As a result, the fire in Notre-Dame de Paris affected more than a Christian place of worship.
No wonder there was an initial, virtually universal, outpouring of grief and concern when the news of the fire was reported. People posted pictures of the cathedral and prayers for Paris on social media. News outlets provided video of the fire and interviews with significant individuals. Church leaders gave statements to their constituencies pertaining to the fire.
Within 12 hours, however, other voices began to make themselves heard. They reminded us that Notre-Dame was not the only house of worship that was damaged or destroyed in the last week. Most of this commentary was well-meaning, but was it necessary? Alternatively, is it improper for us to express our grief for a specific circumstance without acknowledging all other problems in the world?
As Christians we should be concerned for all those who suffer and not show favoritism — especially to those by whom we would in some way prosper. On the other hand, I would think that we actually deny the unique pain of our neighbors by equating their loss with that of all others who under similar circumstances.
It may be a prophetic message to remind our listeners of the plight of the poor, the racially different, and the non-Christian. The question, however, is whether this is the appropriate context for such a reminder. It seems to be similar to responding to family members who grieve their grandfather’s diagnosis of terminal cancer by telling them that a young mother on the other side of town has just been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Such a response is neither helpful nor compassionate. While the pastoral role should be to join people in their grief, when we ask them to understand their circumstances from our perspective, we are calling them to deny their grief. We are not mourning with them, but rather we are signaling to them what their proper attitude should be. Fundamentally our response is not about them but about us.
Another response to the Notre-Dame fire was a more gnostic and spiritual critique. We were told that the Church is not the building but rather the people, so what was important could not be destroyed by the flames. And besides, all Christians should know that all material things will be burned up at the end of time.
Once again, that statement is true and we are admonished by Jesus not to put our faith in material objects or treasures. To mourn for the devastation of Notre-Dame de Paris, however, has nothing to do with our salvation. Rather, we are grieved for the loss (hopefully temporary) of a significant signpost that has effectively directed people to God over the centuries.
Jesus never taught that the material order was inferior to the spiritual or less important. In fact Jesus entered and sanctified the material order by becoming incarnate in a physical body. Furthermore, Jesus did not dispose of his physical body at the crucifixion; his body was renewed and resurrected with him and he ascended into heaven in bodily form. Once again, then, to redirect the mourner’s sorrow by dismissing the importance of the building is to deny the legitimacy of the mourner’s grief.
Finally, to love our neighbors is to join our neighbors in their grief. We are called to mourn with those who mourn, to be fully present to them. That means we need to join them in their moment of grief, regardless of what else is going on in the world. We are the body of Christ and made up of many members. That means that we are not all called to be present to every group of mourners throughout the world.
Some of us are in a position to join those who mourn with the population mourning the devastation of Notre-Dame. Others are called to join those who grieve for black Baptist churches that were burned in Louisiana. Many Christians lament the destruction of church buildings and persecution of the Christians in the Sudan. Still others are broken over the fire in the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. All these expressions of solidarity and compassion are legitimate and necessary if we are to function as the body of Christ.
What is not legitimate is to call into question the expressions of grief by other Christians or to build a hierarchy of importance when it comes to standing compassionately with those who mourn. Nor should we use another group’s suffering as an opportunity to make prophetic statements about the ills of our society or church.
Firefighters saved the cathedral from total destruction and saved many important artifacts from incineration. Notre-Dame de Paris will be restored. It has been estimated, however, that the facility will not be ready for visits by the public for at least five years and more likely 20 years.
As a result, millions of people will be denied the blessing of fully experiencing the awesome witness of this cathedral. A powerful testimony to our God and Father in the midst of our secular culture has been lost, perhaps for decades. For that we may all grieve.
Chuck Alley is a retired rector of St. Matthew’s in Richmond, Va., and an adjunct associate professor of anatomy on the medical faculty of Virginia Commonwealth University.