What can survive a tragic fire? Rose windows, an organ, an altar, many relics and statues—and faith.
Of the many photos taken after the tragic fire that nearly destroyed the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, the one that really touches me shows the main altar behind the charred debris, the gold cross rising behind a poignant white marble sculpture of the crucified Jesus held by His mother, the Virgin Mary, for whom the church is named.
That the whole thing happened during Holy Week could not be lost on any of us believers, that time of year when we reflect on the suffering of our God and how it mirrors the suffering of all humanity, the mystery inherent in our faith, that we pray to a God who died a horrible death.
At my church’s choir rehearsal that night, as we practiced the music we’d be singing at Easter, comments flew across the room about the miracles that accompanied this disaster, the things that survived the fire: the Rose windows of stained glass, the organ, the relics, the statuary, the very altar that entranced me. Were we also reminding ourselves how faith can miraculously survive a fire?
The Bible uses the imagery of fire in several ways. After all, God appeared to Moses as a burning bush and when Jesus’s followers were blessed by the Holy Spirit they were shown tongues of fire. From the Bible we get the concept of a refiner’s fire, like gold that is purified. Like the cross that survived this fire.
The news of the Notre Dame fire came to me first in the midst of an email discussion about another cathedral fire, one that blessedly caused little damage. On Palm Sunday at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York there was an early morning fire in the crypt. As one of my friends described it, seeing the first signs of smoke. “That’s not incense,” he said.
The staff and congregation reacted quickly. While the fire was put out, they brought chairs and an altar outside, setting it up so that the worshippers who arrived to celebrate Palm Sunday would not be disappointed. The church building could not be used; yet the church went on.
I’m reminded of that old song we used to sing in Sunday school: “I am the church! You are the church! We are the church together!” We survive fires, we are refined by fires, we rebuild after fires, and we are fired by faith, all around the world.
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