I’m writing this on the day after the fire that burned down most of Notre Dame Cathedral. It’s been in the news, of course, and even managed to push some of the usual political dreck out of the news for a little while, which is quite an accomplishment.
Of course there’s been a lot of talk about what happened and how terrible it was and what a shame it is to have lost all the pieces of art and other things of cultural importance that may have been consumed by the fire. At this point we don’t know how much has been saved, damaged or lost. But clearly we’ve lost a lot of incredible and priceless works of art. In fact the whole building is itself a work of art.
All the massive cathedrals are. I’ve never seen Notre Dame, but have seen several huge cathedrals in Spain. The most memorable to me is the one in Burgos. It’s just incredible to look at and a true work of art in and of itself, not counting whatever might be inside of it.
I’ve been touched to see people from all different walks of life and faiths and belief systems remark on how terrible this fire was. I’m glad people can understand that when a historic building or site is destroyed or damaged, we all lose something. It’s good to know that we are still tied together by some things that are above and beyond what we think about every day.
I think, however, that what really shakes people up when something like this happens goes far beyond art or history. The Cathedral of Notre Dame represented something more than just human effort and creativity, though it certainly does represent that.
Like all the other great cathedrals that were built in Europe during what we call the Middle Ages, its construction spanned several lifetimes. Notre Dame was started in 1160 and wasn’t finished until 1260. Since then, of course, it’s been modified and renovated many times. But think about those construction dates again. A full century passed between the laying of the first stone and it’s completed. Given the average life span during those days, that would have been about three generations.
Imagine starting work on a building that you know you’ll never see completed. You begin knowing that the work on it will be passed down to your child and then your grandchild and maybe even your great grandchild before it’s completed.
Things happen so fast today that it’s nearly impossible to imagine starting something that you know will take several generations to finish. We want everything right now. But the people who planned and began construction on Nortre Dame knew full well they’d never see it finished. They weren’t building it for themselves and they weren’t building it for their posterity either.
They were building it with eternity in mind. Everything about the building, everything in the building and everything that it would be used for were designed with eternity in mind. Their faith in Someone far greater than themselves ennobled them to build something far greater than themselves. Something that would hopefully last for ages and would faithfully point men and women to consider themselves and their lives in the light of eternity.
And they succeeded.
It’s more than a little ironic that the full measure of their success can only be seen now that so much of what they build has been heavily damaged or destroyed. This is true because now that the building has, at least in part, succumbed to age and decay that we realize just how faithfully it completed its calling in the lives of millions of people.
Or, to put it another way, you don’t miss the water till the well runs dry.
Now that the great cathedral is nearly gone we appreciate it more. Yes, it will be rebuilt, and yes, when it’s done it won’t be the same. A lot of people are going to gripe about that. They do so in the face of the fact that the building that caught fire had been renovated many times since 1260. Now it will receive a very thorough rebuilding indeed.
More than a Cathedral burned down on Monday. A piece of history did too. But those flames rekindled in many of our hearts and minds the awareness of how small we are and how vast the universe is. More than that, it reminded us that our lives are lived out in the face of an eternity that dwarfs the universe itself.
That’s what we should be thinking about during this week, called Holy Week by those who owned and used the Cathedral. A painful and powerful reminder of the eternal reality we all too often ignore.
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Louie Marsh is pastor of Christ’s Church on the River on the Parker Strip. Visit his website HERE.