By Terence Chandra
The Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris is not merely a triumph of Medieval architecture — a composite of stone, wood and glass, precisely and harmoniously balanced to produce a totality far in excess of the sum of its parts. Nor is it merely a grand repository of historical treasures.
Notre Dame de Paris is — like the many chapels, cathedrals and basilicas that adorn the cities and countrysides of Europe and North America — a monument to a time when the church and her teachings pervaded every nook and cranny of society, from the humble home of the peasant to the grand halls of the nobility. It stands as a memorial to a time when archbishops made rulings on matters of state and the word of a pope could unmake kings.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the sight of this great house of worship engulfed in flames should become emblematic of the decline of the church in the West: a slow and steady burn, 500 years in the making, that has devastated Western Christendom. It is tragically fitting that this catastrophe should take place in France, once the home of the Holy See and now among the most secular nations in the West.
In the course of my roughly decade-long ministry as an Anglican priest, I have not seen any churches or cathedrals burn. I have, however, seen many of them deconsecrated and abandoned, sold and demolished, remade into homes, shops, or museums. Although none of these closures made international headlines, their losses were still deeply grieved by those who worshiped within their walls.
I vividly recall the caretaker of my childhood church — a stoic old laborer who never showed emotion — weep when he announced to parishioners that they could take pieces of stone as keepsakes, tangible reminders of a building that would be no more.
I remember standing in the middle of another empty church hall slated for demolition, the retired Sunday school superintendent by my side. She spoke of a time when the children’s choir would rehearse in this hall — dozens of children in choir habit — filling the small, musty space with the music of heaven. She spoke with tears in her eyes, gazing about the room as if she could see, even in that moment, each of those white-robed children, surrounding her like ghosts.
I have heard countless parishioners mourn the loss of a time when Sunday schools and youth groups swelled to nearly unmanageable numbers and church services were so well attended that showing up late meant sitting in the balcony.
Each parish I have served has been haunted with the same desperate hope that, with the right kind of leadership using the right kind of techniques, this pattern of steady decline can be reversed. When this happens, the church will be just like it was in its glory days, when people of all ages, each sporting their Sunday finest, would fill the nave each week. “We have to bring back the youth” — I’ve heard that phrase far more times than I can count.
A similar problem rests in the words of France’s President, Emmanuel Macron: “We will rebuild Notre Dame, more beautiful than before.”
But what if we can’t simply rebuild? What if turning back the tide of history and restoring what once was proves impossible? Or, more to the point, what if that isn’t even what we’resupposed to do? Our task now is not to rebuildbut to persist. We cannot remain frozen in our grief, gazing back — like Lot’s tragic wife — upon a time and a place that has already been consumed in flame.
Rather, we must discern the new thing that God is doing and, rather than fighting his will, conform our own wills to it. This theme is echoed again and again, throughout the story of salvation, a story that continues to unfold to our day.
When the second Temple was razed in A.D. 70, Jews suffered a devastating loss. The brick and mortar structure where God’s divine presence uniquely dwelt was now gone. Gone was the Holy of Holies; gone were the morning and evening sacrifices; gone were the priestly cast who daily sustained the rhythm of that elaborate cultus. Rebuilding was not an option. The Jews had to find a new way to be the people of God — centering their faith not on a physical temple but on the study and obedience of Torah. No, they could not rebuild but they could persist.
When Christ — his very body a living temple — was taken from the disciples on the day of the Ascension, they most certainly suffered a loss. No longer would they receive divine teaching, spoken to them in the unique tone and timbre of a familiar human voice. No longer would they gaze into his eyes across charcoal fires, or break bread with him, or embrace him, or kiss him.
“Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father” (John 20:17) are among the first words of the Risen Christ to the bewildered Mary Magdalene, as she stood, still weeping, outside the tomb. The first Christians had to learn how to let go, allowing their Lord to show them a new way of abiding in his presence — not physically but, instead, through the Holy Spirit: a Spirit who would fill, surround, empower and be with them, even until the end of the age.
They could not simply rebuild. After all, who can ascend to heaven and bring Christ down? But they could move on, embracing the new way that the Lord had set out for them. Again, this is the task of the church in the 21st century: Not to cling to the old good but to embrace, in faith, the new thing that God is doing.
This does not mean that we abandon the ancient treasures that have been entrusted to us. As the blaze consumed Notre DameCathedral, the firefighters’ chaplain, Jean-Marc Fournier, risked his life to snatch the crown of thorns and other relics from the inferno. We should follow his example. We must seize from the ruins of Christendom the treasures of our faith: the apostolic teachings, the Holy Scriptures, the holy sacraments — and carry them out into a world that needs them now, just as much as it did before.
The Rev. Terence Chandra serves with his wife, the Rev. Jasmine Chandra, in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada. They are community priests at Stone Church, an Anglican ministry based in the urban core. They keep a weblog at Pennies and Sparrows.