For 800 years the people of France gave the world a great gift. For 800 years countless millions experienced its transcendent beauty. Then, in an afternoon, it was gone — gutted by fire. We watched it burn, and across the whole of Christendom men and women were surprised by the extent of their grief.
In the days and weeks that follow, people will share their stories about Notre Dame. Here’s mine. On March 9, 1996, I walked into the great cathedral on the morning of my wedding day. The gravity of the moment was starting to sink in, and I wanted a place to pray. We Protestants are accustomed to thinking of the great cathedrals of Europe mainly as tourist attractions — as beautiful historical buildings and not as actual, living churches. That morning changed my heart.
It was too early for most tourists to arrive, so I walked past other worshipers, men and women on their knees before the Lord. I knelt also. I asked God’s blessing on my wedding, on my marriage, and on the children we hoped to have. In that moment, I felt the presence of God, but I also felt something else — for a moment I was staggered at the thought of the sheer number of people who’d knelt in this same spot and asked God for these same good things. I felt more connected to the larger body of Christ than I’d ever felt before.
The Notre Dame I visited wasn’t just a beautiful building. It wasn’t just a marvel of medieval architecture. And it wasn’t just the center of the French nation — the place where kings and emperors were crowned. It was a symbol of an enduring church and God’s enduring presence. France will feel its loss more than it now understands. We all will.
I grew up familiar with the arguments against the great cathedrals. The expense, in poor cultures where most people struggled just to live, was staggering. Some viewed their very existence more as an assertion of the church’s earthly power than as a mark of the church’s eternal devotion. Over time, however, I came to a different view. Yes, I know all mortal endeavors are tainted by mixed motives, and no man is truly pure in heart, but it is a wondrous thing to devote such immense effort and immense talent into glorifying God.
As I write this post, we don’t yet know how much of the great cathedral will still stand when the fires go cold. Already there is talk of rebuilding, of making it magnificent again. But the cathedral that once was is gone forever. That much we know. But in loss perhaps there is a measure of hope. God often moves in times of grief, and as Christians mourn Notre Dame’s loss, perhaps some will take this moment to remember Notre Dame’s true purpose. And perhaps they’ll remember the words of the prophet Jeremiah, written at another time of unspeakable earthly loss — the fall of the Holy City of Jerusalem — “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness.”