The great second century Christian leader Tertullian famously wrote: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” He, of course, was contrasting the philosophy of Greek intellectuals with the gospel of the Christian prophets and apostles. But I borrow and adapt his question to our needs today and ask, “What Has Paris to do with Jerusalem?”
Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris is one of the great symbols of Christian history and Christian vitality. Here people have worshiped God, confessed Christ, and sought strength to live in the power of the Spirit. Not just Catholics, but millions of Christians.
Kathleen Norris, the popular and influential Christian writer, had this to say about an important episode in her long journey to a vital Christian life:
And once in Paris, as
I stepped into Notre Dame
To get out of the rain,
The organist began to play;
I stood rooted to the spot.
Looked up and believed.
That sanctuary stands tall and strong in France, an increasingly secular France. It represents what we all believe: God is the good and gracious creator of the world; Jesus Christ died for our sins and God raised him from the dead; the Spirit of the living God is active in this world bringing life, and justice, and peace, and beauty, and salvation … to people everywhere.
This 850+-year-old wonder of stone, and wood, and glass is one of the signs of Christian history. And this week much of it went up in flames. The world watched in horror as fire engulfed that mighty fortress of our God. The people of Paris stood within sight of their famous landmark and sang hymns, and psalms, and spiritual songs. My Facebook feed was full of lament. People posted pictures of happier times.
It is a great tragedy; but so is the anticipated closing of 9,000 churches in Canada over the next decade.
The fire at the cathedral is an awful tragedy; but so is the campaign in China to intimidate the Church and control its ministry and shutter its sanctuaries.
The burning of Notre Dame is a depressing tragedy; but so is the hostility and violence turned against Christian churches in Nigeria.
The fire in Paris is a shocking tragedy; but so was the arson that torched three church buildings in Louisiana just last week.
These destructions of Christian buildings around the world—intentional or accidental—are unspeakable tragedy. We join with their parishioners, all of them, to morn. These buildings—France, China, Canada, Nigeria, Louisiana—are symbols of our faith and practice.
They are not the substance, but they are signs: important signs, public signs, precious signs. Many of them, like stones heaped by Jacob at a place he called Beth-el, commemorate the mighty works of God.
But this week our thoughts are turned toward the substance of our Christian faith, the stuff behind the symbols and signs, the events underneath our doctrines and dramas, the truth surrounding our pillars and beams and windows and glass.
The substance of our faith is found in the events of this week, in Jerusalem, a long time ago. These events were also tragic.
The crowds roared their approval and enthusiasm on Palm Sunday. But Jesus already knew behind their shouted blessings was the tragic fickleness of pseudo faith.
The great plaza around the temple was jammed with people, all intent upon fulfilling rituals commanded in the Hebrew Bible. But Jesus knew that behind their frenzy activity was the tragic greed that seems too often to accompany the flourishing of the church.
The disciples of Jesus had bought into his messianic vision, what little they understood. But Jesus knew that among them was one who had already traded his loyalty for pieces of silver and another who would in short order deny him three times. It was tragedy.
They gathered that week for the joyful table fellowship that had made Jesus both famous and frustrating. But Jesus knew that this would be his last supper with them, and they did not know this, and that was tragic. Jesus knelt in the garden almost alone. He knew the broad outlines of the tragedy that was about to unfold: arrest, incarceration, false testimony, beatings and betrayals, crucifixion, death, even death on a cross, more like a lynching. But his friends fell asleep.
No wonder he prayed once and often, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, would I could gather you under my wings like a month hen … but you would not.” Jesus knew the tragic judgment that awaited the city he loved, because they could not discern the day of opportunity, the time of repentance, the jubilee year for justice, the hour of their salvation.
Today we know. We know about the troubles that confront the Christian community around the world. We know about the fire at the famous cathedral in Paris. We also know about the fickleness of our own faith: our failures to be strong and true in a time of trial, our misplaced love for the finer things of our Christian culture, our inattention to opportunities that come our way to repent, to march for justice, to fall on our knees and pray like the sinners we are: “It’s not my brother, not my sister, but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.”
The president of France and the archbishop of Paris have already promised: we will rebuild the cathedral, bigger and better than ever. More than a billion dollars have been pledged.
May we Christians, in this holiest week of our year, face our own tragedies with as much confidence, as much hope, as much faith in the living God, and in the son of God, our only savior, Jesus Christ the Lord.