On Dust and Time in Churches: Notre Dame and Holy Week

Thou hast a house on high erect 

Framed by that mighty Architect,

With glory richly furnished, 

Stands permanent though this be fled.

“Verses upon the Burning of our House, 10 July 1666” by Anne Bradstreet.

Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris has burned this Holy Week. The world watched the flickering heat lick and then consume the roof of the eight-hundred-year-old church, then, horrified, witnessed the spire falling. In our secular, postmodern world, why did the sight of flames devouring an old building, particularly a church, move so many? What are we to learn from this?


A view of Notre Dame from the rear, with the Eiffel Tower framed between the two towers. Photo by Colin Schmitt from Pexels.

The historic value of Notre Dame, of course, explains part of our grief. Anyone who cherishes the study of the past and the relics, holy or otherwise, that mark it knows the incalculable worth of a Gothic structure like Notre Dame. Though the cathedral will be rebuilt, no amount of money, however philanthropically gifted, and no amount of architectural purity can replace what has been lost. Preservationists across the globe will be further disheartened to learn that part of the rebuilding will include a design contest rather than a reconstruction of what previously stood. I shudder to think of the result.

But Christians grieve over the loss of Notre Dame for more than its historical design and consequence. More than one commentator has noted the symbolic significance of the burning cathedral, from “The End of Christendom” to “Hope in the Ruins” (to mention just two takes). Those of us who notice the increased secularization of our culture, and the emptying and closing of our churches, know that the fire represents what has been happening to many churches, only the burn and smoke and destruction has more often been slow and subtle than fast and noticeable.

Thibault Camus/AP Photo in Business Insider.

Stratford Caldecott, in his lovely and timeless book Beauty for Truth’s Sake: On the Re-enchantment of Education (Beauty for Truth’s Sake: On the Re-enchantment of Education""” target=”_blank” rel=”noreferrer noopener” aria-label=”affiliate link (opens in a new tab)”>affiliate link), writes that

The transcendence of time by eternity, and by Christ as the incarnation of eternity in time, is suggested by the stability and durability of the church. An effective church building is a manifestation of tradition, and tradition is more than just the dead accumulation of custom; it is a living organism that overcomes time and death by a process of continual regeneration and gradual creative development. The church building, if it achieves permanence simply by resisting change and being preserved over centuries, might be no more than a museum or monument. But if it is built to last and is sustained from within by a community of worshippers then its permanence becomes a true reflection of eternity.

Pages 101-102.

Photo by Ashley Elena from Pexels.

Caldecott rightly emphasizes the importance of devout worshippers. Too many of our churches have become merely museums and monuments (or even condos or bars or nightclubs), empty of people confessing Christ. The living organism of a community of faithful believers gathering around His Word and Sacrament has long been tepid or absent at too many Christian churches, even great, old ones like Notre Dame. This is why even Lutherans like me are sad at the news this week. Burning churches bespeak of both lost holy places and lost souls.

Joshua Gibbs noted this ecumenical mourning of Notre Dame in the Circe Institute “The Cedar Room” blog this week. “The loss of Notre Dame, or huge portions of it, stings even the Protestant and Orthodox Christian because cathedrals are physical manifestations that worship is one of the human things,” he wrote. “Cathedrals are silent arguments and wordless syllogisms which make it easier to believe. … Yes, Christianity will go on. No, no one died. Nonetheless, a very old and very good thing which testified to the power of piety and the sanity of beauty has been irreparably marred.” We cannot take for granted either our faith or the witness of our faith through physical materials of wood and stone when we see smoldering ruins, ash and dust that remind of us of Earth’s mortality and our own.

Which brings me to Holy Week. We began this Lent with Ash Wednesday, our somber reflection with King Solomon that from dust we are formed, and to dust we shall return (Ecclesiastes 3:19-20). This week we remember how our incarnate Lord, God made flesh, gave and gives His body and blood to us, and how He suffered crucifixion before He died. As we think about the burning of Notre Dame, let us also meditate upon its “Gothic floorplan [which] echoed the form of Christ’s human body on the Cross, and the distance between heaven and earth… in vertical elongation” (Caldecott 104). We must go to our own churches to hear and receive the Truth embodied in Christ, that though time will inevitably take its toll on us, moving us inexorably to the dust, we know that earthly death is not our end because it was not His end. An Architect and His mortal yet immortal Son remain our permanent hope.

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