The tragic fire at Notre Dame cathedral can remind us to look at what can be born when the defining symbols of our lives are changed.

Huge flames consume the spire and roof of Notre Dame cathedral, while smoke towers over the city of Paris.
Flames and smoke rise from the blaze at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris on April 15, 2019.
Credit: AP Photo/Thierry Mallet

With the shocking images in the news recently of the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, many people have been struck by a deep sense of grief, disbelief, and sadness at the destruction of this venerable landmark.

As flames engulfed the 800-year-old building, Paris residents and visitors alike gathered in the streets to join in song and prayer as an expression of their loss and sorrow. Mainstream news headlines were dominated by images of fire and public lamentation. NPR’s Andrew Lapin wrote, “This felt like watching a symphony burn down.”

This response is a testament to the powerful meaning church buildings carry as a symbol of the sacred landscape. Even people who may never enter a church for worship are still moved to tears and public expressions of sorrow in the event of their damage or loss.

Such occasions for lament are an important expression of our relationship with the physical symbols of the sacred in our midst. Yet even in the midst of this sorrow, there have been accompanying expressions of hope that all is not lost. In fact, it turns out there hasn’t been just one version of Notre Dame over the centuries. It has been changed and renovated many times. Even if it had burned down completely, along with the loss there would undoubtedly be a new structure rising from the ashes.

We must not lose sight of the fact that the church isn’t the building. Church buildings come and go. In fact, in the history of both Judaism and Christianity, many claim that the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE was instrumental in giving rise to these two new expressions of the Hebrew tradition. In place of the temple, the new symbolic focus for Judaism was the Torah. For Christianity, it was Jesus Christ.

What is a sacred landscape? Does the building define it? Even in the midst of the sorrow of loss, what can be born in times when the defining symbols of our lives are being changed?

These aren’t just questions being asked by the people of Paris and the millions of others who have been moved by the burning of Notre Dame. They are questions that confront all of us, as we face the future of the United Church.

What happens as some of our buildings have to close, with age and declining congregations? What happens when some of our own buildings are devoured by flames, as happened recently to the United Church in the small community of Pacquet in Newfoundland and Labrador? There will be sadness and loss, as in Paris and Pacquet, and so there should be. Hopefully, we too will be drawn out to sing, weep, pray, and embrace each other in the streets. But then we will move on, as the spirit lives on, finding new expressions and new forms of growth arising out of the loss of what was. Let’s grieve and honour the losses. Let’s look for and cultivate the new seeds.

—Jane Dawson is the Minister Supporting Communities of Faith, Clusters, and Networks for the Eastern Ontario Outaouais Regional Council. With a background as a writer, adult educator, and spiritual director, she has a deep interest in exploring all of the ways people experience the sacred as a part of their life journeys.

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