In response to the recent fire at the Notre Dame cathedral, most people I know fell into two camps: the ones talking about how tragic the event was…and those who felt those people had their priorities wrong. “Why all of the sadness about a cathedral when innocent people die every day from preventable causes?” they ask. “We have no right call this a tragedy compared to that.”
I understand the heart behind what they’re saying. Most of the people voicing those opinions care deeply about other issues—human trafficking, abuse, malnutrition, and every other evil that directly affects human lives. Many of them, like me, are Christians who are acting out their belief that physical things—even a thing as full of art and history and beauty as Notre Dame—will not ultimately last, while our own souls are eternal.
So…isn’t it right, even biblical, to set aside sadness for Notre Dame and replace it with better priorities?
Not necessarily. Come along with me to Ezra 3, where the exiled people of Israel are back in their ruined city, rebuilding the walls and the temple, dedicating back to the Lord what they’d built back from the ruins.
“And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away.”
Joy and sorrow, crammed together in the same verses. They weren’t mourning the loss of human life. They were crying over the diminished glory of a place of worship, comparing it to Solomon’s temple and remembering its splendor.
It’s just a building.
Oh, but it’s all right to mourn for it. There’s a reason God left that aching contrast in the Bible, I think. We can let it remind us of the paradoxical reality of living in a world where nothing beautiful lasts. When we mourn Notre Dame, we might not know it, but it becomes a symbol for every broken promise and every stolen innocence and every child’s gravestone, for every injustice and suffering and pain.
“Not again,” we are saying together, watching the footage of smoke and flame. “Please, no. Just let one beautiful thing survive, this once.”
But it, like everything else, goes from ashes to ashes, from dust to dust. Just like we will.
I had the chance to tell the Ezra 3 story to the kids at our church a few months ago. It had been a particularly difficult week for me, and as I explained the passage, I told them, “It’s all right to come to church feeling deeply sad and bring that sadness to God. Sometimes our grief can be worship too.”
You could see understanding dawning on them. I know their families. Many of them have had hard years, filled with loss and setbacks and disappointments.
I hope they made the connection between this passage and why it’s okay to grieve at funeral and why Mom sometimes cries while singing “It is Well with My Soul” and why we can’t help but feel deeply sad when we see hurt and heartbreak and destruction in the world around us.
We weren’t meant for this. That’s the gospel, backed out from our individual lives to include all of history.
The world was good, the world is fallen, the world will be redeemed.
Good Friday comes before Easter, and we’re in the shadowy in-between of Easter and the Final Redemption. It’s all right to mourn for what’s broken and corrupted and silent and hard until that day. That includes the fiery destruction of a cathedral, but of course, it shouldn’t stop there.
We should be shocked and horrified by every account of evil and suffering we hear about, especially the kind that takes human life. It’s hard. We see a scrolling litany of it in our news, and it’s easy to know too much and feel too little.
We are, all of us, cathedrals, created to reflect the glory of God, every tiny, beautiful detail of our lives arranged to point to truth about him.
But it wasn’t just the world, generically, that is fallen. I wasn’t at that first Fall, but I’ve been present at thousands of miniature ones since then, where I deliberately reject the glory I’m supposed to bear. I break the law and turn away from good, I fear instead of trusting, lie instead of seeking truth, hurt instead of healing.
Sometimes I feel like a charred building, gutted out by flames with only remnants of good left behind. Sometimes I look around at this mess of a world and see a smoldering ruin. Something that once was—and could still be—heartbreakingly beautiful. But it has been destroyed beyond recognition.
That’s always my mindset going into Good Friday. That’s why I always cry for Judas, every single year, because in his failure and fall, I see my own, and all of humanity’s. I see, in his story, a thousand headlines about burning cathedrals, and it is a tragedy beyond words. I see myself, too, in the choices he made. Except for the last one.
I have fallen. But I have been and I am and I will be redeemed.
Notre Dame burned on Holy Week. That is sad, and it is good for our souls, I think, to be sad about every violent act that reminds us that this isn’t the way things are supposed to be.
But we’re on the other side of Easter, the first act of redemption that promises and makes possible the Great Restoration.
The world—in all its evil and chaos and hopelessness—has fallen. But redemption has come, is here, and will one day come in fullness. And that’s a reason to shout for joy.
(Every year, around Good Friday, I write about Judas, either directly or indirectly. Here are the archives for anyone who’s interested: 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018.)