Editor’s Note: The Reverend Richard Hong is the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Englewood, New Jersey. Their historic sanctuary was destroyed in a fire on March 22, 2016. The views expressed here are his. View more opinion on CNN.
As I watched the reports of the blaze engulfing the Notre Dame Cathedral, the event triggered memories of the fire in 2016 that destroyed the sanctuary of the church where I serve as the pastor. Like the Notre Dame fire, ours happened during the week before Easter, which Christians refer to as Holy Week. Although nothing compares to the magnificence of Notre Dame, our church was fairly large (700 seats), locally historic (about 150 years old) and also contained a recently-restored pipe organ. Our pipe organ, our Tiffany stained-glass window and the sanctuary where so many were married and baptized were lost.
The destruction of our sanctuary just five days before Easter made that Easter even more meaningful to us. Easter is a day when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. It represents life after death. It represents recovery from tragedy. In the aftermath of the fire, the coming of Easter helped us focus not on what we lost, but on what we could become.
We were reminded that a church is the people, not a building – the Greek word that ultimately became “church” was ekklesia, which means “assembly.” It was never meant to refer to the structure in which the people gathered. The structure is meant to serve the people, not the other way around.
Because Notre Dame is a work of art itself with works of art within, the damage it has sustained is a stunning loss to the world. And while the two are not entirely separable, (because God gifts individuals with the ability to create great art and God created a world of great beauty and called it very good), there is a distinction between the building’s function as a sacred space of worship and the building’s beauty as a work of art.
As tragic as this fire was, we must be reminded that the purpose of the church is not to celebrate the works of humankind, but to celebrate the works of God. Our faith is in the eternal, not the temporal. As the apostle Paul writes, “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”
One of the more interesting observations I made after our fire is that while strangers were sending me messages about how devastated they were upon hearing about it, our members were not devastated. Our members set about the task of continuing to be the church. We lost our building, but we still had our church – because we still had each other, and God was with us. God still is with us.
We are now close to breaking ground on the rebuilding, but the new sanctuary will not look like the old. Our purpose was not to recreate what we had, but to create a space that would serve the people long after we are gone.
Our hope is that in 50 years, or 100 years or more, people will be experiencing faith within that space. But we also know that it will not stand forever. It will meet its end – whether by fire, wrecking ball, or even the ravages of war – and there will be sadness. But the people will still be the church, even after the building is gone.
Likewise, the people of France will still be the French, and as a community may they become stronger through this. As their cathedral is rebuilt, may they be drawn to the beauty that is God-inspired.
During Holy Week, we descend to the depths of the crucifixion on Good Friday, but that is followed by the joy of the resurrection on Easter. Our Christian hope is that God is with us – alive and active, and caring about those who weep, mourn and hunger for goodness in the world. The Christian church, inspired by Christ’s act of reconciling us with God, is focused on sharing this good news with others, thus building God’s community on earth. It is also focused on the future, when the fullness of this building effort will come to pass.
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The loss of what Notre Dame Cathedral has been cannot be calculated. But as we approach Easter, in faith we can dare to say that Notre Dame’s best years may still lie ahead.