The Burning of Notre Dame
Very few stories have dominated the news in the past two months like the burning of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. It made sense. An iconic building with flames shooting out has a way of grabbing our attention and tugging at our heart strings. In response, people took to social media in unprecedented numbers to share memories and grieve together. There is a feeling that we have lost something as a collective humanity. Some believe our visceral reaction to this event is simply the mourning of a heritage sight. After all, John Stonestreet points out in his fine Breakpoint article, this is the venue where Henry VI, of England, was also crowned King of France in 1431, and Napoleon crowned himself Emperor in 1804, and Joan of Arc was beatified in 1909. But I believe our reaction speaks to something deeper than the loss of a historical artifact. The clue of what lies beneath those emotions is the truth that Notre Dame is an active congregation that was preparing for an Easter weekend of worship services. Notre Dame is a sacred place. And that sacred space speaks powerfully about a God who chooses to express part of His character through beauty. And that sacred space says something powerful in us that longs for such places.
First, God seems to express part of His character through beauty. We see this pattern in both Biblical and human history. We see the character of God expressed through the beauty of creation. Before there were relational creatures, God created a habitat for Himself that was worthy of His glory and made a statement about His character. The Psalmist would state it so eloquently, “the heavens declare the Glory of God.”
We saw the character of God expressed in the creation of both iterations of the temple in the Old Testament. No expense was spared for the Temple that would be the focal point of Israelite religious life. The finest artisans were dispatched and no detail was left undone in creating a space for the Holy God of Israel to inhabit.
We see the beauty of God in Jesus. This is the stunning reversal in religious history. God would not be situated in a building or place, but instead of person. Israel would be reconstituted not around a temple sacrificial system with a priest offering sacrifices, but in a person. In the elegant words of John 1 in Eugene Peterson’s Message paraphrase, “God took on flesh and tabernacled among us…”. The beauty of God would be housed in a fresh expression of God’s love through a suffering servant and ultimately a cross.
But in perhaps the most stunning reversal of all, God’s beauty would be reflected in humanity. We are told that humanity was created in the image of God, the Imago Dei. This simply means that the very best impulses and intentions of human beings would reflect the very nature and character of God himself. Our capacity to create beauty through artwork, our impulse for justice, our desire to love, our valuing of courage, our society’s desire to care for the vulnerable and the weak are all small slivers of a habitation so intrinsically planted that it is almost hidden. We can almost think that this comes from ourselves. But this is not the natural state of humanity. Left to our own devices, human beings are naturally selfish and deceitful…. We are not altruistic. Our hearts are darkened and deceitful. It is the homing device of God’s image that points us in the direction of goodness. When human beings act in accordance to values that celebrate and enrich humanity it is a reflection of our maker. It is also the image of God that prompts our hearts to respond in wonder and awe to beautiful things, both natural and man-made. It stirs something deeper in us when we see cathedrals such as Notre Dame. Regardless of how we explain them those impulses are divine promptings and those promptings hard-wire us for immense creativity.
My tribe, the Jesus tribe, describes this soul-stirring response as worship. When we gaze at something with wonder and awe we are ascribing ultimate worth to it. This comes from the view that God has not only implanted His image but also has implanted His person, His Holy Spirit. The Apostle Paul uses this kind of language “….do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you…that you have received from God.” (I Cor. 6:19). It is this same Spirit that has inspired poets, composers, architects, and musicians filled with wonder to create beautiful things for God and then give him credit. It was said that composer Johann Sebastian Bach would sign all of his compositions “Soli Deo Gloria”, Glory to God alone, to give praise God for the beauty he had created. It was in this tradition that the great cathedrals of Europe were created. It was the Spirit of God who lifted, moved, and inspired earthen vessels to expressions of vast beauty.
Conversely, the Christian tradition speaks of something else we need to pay attention to and that is the pervasive power of sin that inhibits creative expression. We tend to think of sin as a list of moralistic rules, mostly relating to sex, that we have to avoid so God will not be mad at us. But the effect of sin is that it diminishes. It takes from us. It makes us smaller people. It inhibits our ability to wonder. Sin corrupts our souls and eventually renders us incapable of wonder and beauty as we become more and more consumed with self-serving and petty pursuits.
As most of you know I recently took a job in Atlanta with my company as a Flight Attendant Supervisor. My company graciously gave me three days to move. I got into town late on the first day so for several days I drove around attending to various details pertaining to moving to a new location: Where will I live? Will I like it? Wow this traffic is ridiculous! Sunday rolled around and in mid-town Atlanta walkable from my apartment were many options for churches of all different ilk. There was a church meeting in a local comedy club that looked cool and trendy. There were others in my home tradition slightly farther away. But then I noticed a grand cathedral of the local Presbyterian Church built in the late 1800’s that inspired awe. It was a majestic building with finely detailed contours of fine stone masonry. The space was intentional and worshipful. It was here that I found a refuge. I listened to the ancient words of the liturgy, the confession of faith, the classic Charles Wesley song “Love Divine All Love Excelling” with those elegant words reverberating off the stained glass and massive pipes of towering spires exquisitely constructed. In this sacred space I was lifted from the smallness of my own life…from my meager and somewhat petty ambitions. I was lifted from the binding downward pull of my own struggles and I was moved once again by beauty and wonder. I was renewed to face my life and challenges from a new and more powerful place. Yes, I understand that the church is not a building, but the people. And I am certainly not promoting one style of worship as more effective than another. But there was something very powerful about this intentional space that was set apart in busyness downtown Atlanta. That intentional space made a powerful statement about a God who can inspire such a place and inhabit it. That sacred space spoke deeply of our human yearning for a space that is sacred and the divine impulse within us to worship in response to beauty and wonder.
We are told that God inhabits the praises of His people. But if we are silent, the stones will cry out.