Fire at Notre Dame: What do we grieve when our symbols burn?

Post Author: Brenna Baker

fire at Notre-Dame de Paris, Paris, France

Notre-Dame de Paris, Paris, France

People around the world watched in shock at the beginning of Holy Week as images out of Paris depicted the Notre Dame Cathedral engulfed in flames, the famous spire eventually crashing down into the burning interior. Immediately, people took to social media to post their pictures and memories of being in Paris, walking around and through the iconic, enormous, stone sanctuary. French or not, Christian or not, this was one of those tragedies where it became easy for the Western world to unite in grief.

There is much to grieve. There is much with which to empathize. This landmark may never be the same again in our lifetime. Something has shifted. In a world that seems to be in constant, tumultuous change, what does it mean when something that seemed so certain is revealed to be so vulnerable? Having grown up in a town where we were able to see the Twin Towers on a clear day, I remember acutely what it feels to see a landscape and geography changed so quickly and devastatingly.

We can weep with architects and artists who mourn the loss of this work, the time and energy that has gone up in flame. Many will never get to experience the treasures within the cathedral, which is heartbreaking and unfortunate.

But what else? What else are we grieving?

As clergywomen, while we may not serve or worship in congregations with as much history and grandiosity as Notre Dame, we can imagine the logistics of leading people through Holy Week and Easter services after their church building has burned to the ground.

Those of us who have experienced similar catastrophes in our worship spaces – fires, floods, collapses, rebuilds – know the emotional and physical work that priests and other religious leaders will now have to do in order to put things back together. This will become the defining task of their ministries for the foreseeable future. We get it. We feel the weight and the pain of that endeavour.

Yet, underneath these immediate reactions of grief, some of us began to confront mixed emotions. Some spoke to the irony of this all happening during Holy Week – the final days of a season that starts with ashes and ends in resurrection. It feels like a horrific visualization of so many of the themes we wrestle with in those holy days – mortality and immortality, institutions that oppress and freedom in Christ, destruction and hope.

In the words of a headline published by news satire site The Onion, “Paris Vows to Rebuild Notre Dame Despite Cosmic Absurdity of Seeking Inherent Meaning in Fleeting Creations of Man.” That might be the best Ash Wednesday sermon I’ve ever heard.

As Notre Dame burned, so also did the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, an event that did not capture the same public attention, public grief, or public outpouring of funding.

As Notre Dame burned, prophetic voices in our minds reminded us of the recent fires in the buildings of historically Black churches in Louisiana, where the fires were set as acts of hate. These other buildings, despite their own cultural and spiritual significance, are far less likely to have funds for repairs, and are not attracting as much attention of billionaires to fund a rebuild.

A loss on the scale of Notre Dame raises questions of past injustices. Did any of the money that went into renovations over the centuries come from slave trade profits? What about the holy relics that draw millions of visitors (and donations) every year? Were any of those taken from places without the consent of native peoples? How do we grapple with the difficulties within the Catholic Church? Who has suffered, implicitly or explicitly, in order that this building and institution might thrive?

For many of us clergy, the burning of Notre Dame makes us painfully aware of our own buildings. Many of us serve congregations housed in aging buildings that have already or will soon be facing their own structural concerns.

Even as we affirm that the church is not a building, we are nevertheless tied to our buildings, and we grieve when these structures are damaged, when they need to be renovated to the point of being unrecognizable, when they are sold, when they are destroyed, or when they are rendered non-functional.

Some of us know the pain of watching congregation members step up to contribute to building funds and repairs, but not to contribute to budgets allowing for fair compensation of their clergy. Some of us have watched our congregations celebrate successful capital campaigns while they have, at the same time, cut hours or wages for staff or clergy.

Sometimes, the message seems to be, “We (the local congregation, and even the wider remnants of Christendom) will always have money for church buildings. But ministry and mission and faith lived outside of the stone walls? Not so much.”

As faith leaders with long careers ahead of us, we cannot escape the fact that buildings will continue to be an issue. Tragedies like Notre Dame may present us with new opportunities to speak with our congregations about our theologies of buildings.

What do our buildings represent to us? What is at the heart of our deep connection to places and spaces? What are the layers of grief to peel away as buildings crumble? What do we need to confess and repent about the ways our commitment to our buildings has sometimes distracted us from God’s call and activity in other places?

In the season of Easter, we celebrate how God incarnate was able to break free from a stone tomb in order to be loose out in the world. As Easter people, we can begin to help our congregations articulate their values around their physical structures. We can walk with them as they embrace the complex grief of buildings that house us, buildings that also limit us, and buildings, such as Notre Dame, that most of us do not claim as our own, but that symbolize important things about our faith and our connection to sacred spaces.

Insofar as buildings represent for our churches an existential confirmation (“We have a building, therefore, we are a church”), it is right to grieve their loss. But we can’t stay there. We can allow the grief to challenge us to look beyond our own structures. With our communities, we can ask hard questions of how we might idolize our buildings and institutions while ignoring suffering in the world – particularly the suffering of people who don’t look or worship like us.

Ultimately, in a resurrection world, we have to allow our grief to move us to a new confession – a confession that our faith does not rest in bricks or mortar. In a resurrection world, our grief in the destruction of symbols can move us to find freedom in vulnerability, in uncertainty, and to a new awakening of what lies outside of our cold, stone walls.

The Rev. Brenna Baker is an American-Canadian and serves as the minister of Erindale United Church in Mississauga, Ontario. Her free time is spent with her spouse, Jordan and their two cats.

Image by: Olivier Mabelly
Used with permission
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