“[The sun] comes forth like a bridegroom leaving his chamber. . . . Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them.” — Psalm 19 (18)
I have to confess that not too long ago I committed a grave sin. I drank Starbucks coffee in Paris. In my defense, I was at the airport on a 5-hour layover and I didn’t have much time to venture out. I planned to hunker down and do some work, but after downing my coffee I soon felt the urge to get out and explore. Notre Dame was an hour away by bus, meaning I could get there and back with enough time to catch my flight.
I felt rushed getting there, but a peace descended on me once I was inside the cathedral. I felt myself being guided toward a secluded place of prayer at the very back of the church, behind the elevated altar. A few small pews were cordoned off for religious observers beneath a statue and painting of the legendary St. George, slaying the dragon.
I found out that there was a special Mass for the Sacred Heart of Jesus beginning soon, but the thought of getting delayed en route to the airpot tore me away from prayer (I’d also had too much coffee and needed to find a restroom outside the church).
So I lit a votive candle, hoping that its flame might extend my prayer, and left.
It took longer than expected to get back to the airport but I still found myself with ample time at the gate.
I realize now that I may never have another opportunity to participate in the liturgy at Notre Dame (still smoldering as I write these words) and I regret that my lack of faith prevented me from staying. With that said, I have always felt ambivalent about grandiose church buildings.
Why? To start, Jesus subverted the temple order of his time — predicting the destruction of his bodily temple (and its resurrection) at the hands of those who upheld the physical temple order. He condemned those who put their hopes in white-washed edifices, and threw out the money changers from the temple courtyard for turning his Father’s house into a den of thieves.
The writings of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI helped me overcome my resistance to the physical church, and appreciate the function and glory of old cathedrals, albeit without turning them into idols. He begins the second chapter of his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy* by noting the simple need for a place to meet and worship the God who “dwelleth not in buildings made by human hands” (Acts 17:24):
EVEN THE STAUNCHEST opponents of sacred things, of sacred space in this case, accept that the Christian community needs a place to meet, and on that basis they define the purpose of church buildings in a non-sacral, strictly functional sense. Church buildings, they say, make it possible for people to get together for the liturgy. This is without question an essential function of church buildings and distinguishes them from the classical form of the temple in most religions.
Like most ancient temples, the temple in Jerusalem was a cultic place of sacrifice, reserved for the deity. Jewish synagogues were all oriented towards the temple in Jerusalem, which housed the Ark of the Covenant up until the time of exile, when it was sacked and raided by the Babylonians. Only the high priests were allowed behind the curtain into the “holy of holies” where the Ark was kept, and only once each year.
What distinguished the Jewish temple from other religious temples was the sparseness of the most hallowed ground. There were no idols or depictions of deities. The only object within the holy of holies, the Ark of the Covenant, was itself an empty receptacle for the “Shekinah” — the cloud of the presence of God — that had guided the Israelites through the desert. For most of Israel’s later history the emptiness of the holy of holies was an expression of hope in a future restoration of the Shekinah by the promised Christ.
Unlike the temple, Christian churches (Greek: “ecclesia” — gatherings) have been houses of assembly for the people of God. At the moment of Jesus’ crucifixion, the temple veil separating the people from the presence of God was rent in two. God’s invisible abiding presence, and His son’s divinity, were revealed for all to see.
Benedict notes, however, that churches retained many of the essential features of the Jewish temple. The altar table — a Christian addition — is shrouded with a curtain of sorts, like the veil in the temple. Synagogues have a shrine of the Torah, and churches enthrone the Gospels on an elevated platform.
Still, buildings of wood and stone — however glorious — are not to be mistaken for the presence of God itself. Benedict continues:
“The Temple built of stone has ceased to express the hope of Christians; its curtain is torn forever. Christians look toward the east, the rising sun… The east supersedes the Jerusalem Temple as a symbol. Christ, represented by the sun, is the place of the Shekinah, the true throne of the living God. In the Incarnation, human nature truly becomes the throne and seat of God, who is thus forever bound to the earth and accessible to our prayers.
Kierkegaard once described Christendom as something like a signpost toward our intended destination — the heavenly Kingdom — noting that it should not be mistaken for the destination itself.
Notre Dame, which may or may not ever be restored to its former glory, was a magnificent signpost, but it was still only a signpost. Although the stained glass accentuated the light to give it a particularly divine glimmer, I was surprised by the relative darkness inside the cathedral.
This is no doubt a tragedy for the people of France, who have lost a beloved landmark — and it is a loss for the cultural heritage of a continent that was once the primary beacon of Christ’s light to the world. For better or for worse, Europe no longer assumes that mantle, and this event is symbolic in many ways of the decline of Christendom in our time.
Tomorrow morning the sun will shine through the fire-ravaged rafters of Notre Dame with healing in its light, reminding us that the presence of God has been revealed throughout all of the cosmos in the Christ — God’s son — and is now accessible to all who hope and believe in his eternal rising.
St. Francis received his mission from God in a vision in which he was told, “Go, Francis, and repair my Church in ruins.” Today we can interpret this call in the light of the full revelation of the Incarnation: Our bodies are the temples in which God’s spirit wishes to dwell, and there is much to be healed and repaired in the ailing body of Christ.
*The Spirit of the Liturgy by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) was one of a small handful of books that brought me into the Catholic Church. Before this, the ideas of a French intellectual named Rene Girard opened my eyes to the meaning of the Gospels and changed my life forever. I recently republished a primer on Girard’s ideas, based on a series of radio interviews by David Cayley on the CBC show Ideas. Read The Ideas of Rene Girard: An Anthropology of Violence and Religion and let me know what you think.