She Is My Church
Jesus answered, “Destroy this temple and in three days I’ll raise it up.” (John 2:19 CEB)
Notre-Dame, elle est mon église…
“Oh Bud, Notre Dame…”
It was all I needed to text to my brother. In some weird twist of fate, he and I both ended up being French majors. When I was a travel agent, I booked a trip for the two of us to Paris. Of course we went to Notre-Dame. With him I not only toured the sanctuary, but also climbed the winding spiral stairs to the tower, peeked in on the great bell, panicked from the height and twisted my ankle going down the opposite staircase, all on our first day in Paris. Of course on your first day in Paris, you go to Notre-Dame. Where else would you go?
As I watched it become engulfed in flames from the safe sanctuary of my home in the United States, my chest tightened with the ache of loss, and I cried. But why? Why was I crying? Notre-Dame is beautiful, but she isn’t even my favorite church in Paris (that honor goes to St. Etienne du Mont). I did remember that I have walked in Notre-Dame and been in awe thinking of the number of people throughout history who had stood on those same stones, and I was in mourning for all those who would not be able to do so now, but that still did not completely explain my sense of loss.
I sat there thinking, “She isn’t even my church.” Then I heard the clip of the people gathered outside singing together, and I remembered that she was my church. Twice.
The first time she was my church was when I studied abroad as an undergrad. At that time, I was not baptized, though if you asked me I would have told you I was Christian, probably to keep you from proselytizing to me. It was, of course, our first morning in Paris, a Sunday, and about half of us in our group had arisen early to go to mass in Notre-Dame. It was my first Catholic mass ever. My new friend from Minnesota leaned over to me and said, “Hey, let’s take communion.”
“Are you Catholic?” I asked.
“No, I’m Lutheran,” she answered.
“I’m not Catholic either. I am pretty sure that is against the rules. I don’t want to get struck by lightning my first day in Paris.”
We didn’t take communion. Instead we stumbled through a worship we barely understood. I was also fascinated that just a few of us, it felt like around 30 or so, were gathered in a roped off section before the cross and altar, while a far greater number around us were whispering and snapping pictures. They don’t close down tourism just for worship. People are asked to be quiet, but have you ever tried to whisper in a gothic cathedral? Every sound bounces off the walls. So we worshipped, our voices of song and chant swallowed by the height of the room and the flurry of the tourists around us. When worship was over, we promptly joined those tourists, whispering words that climbed up vast walls and echoed off the pillars of stone.
The second time I worshipped was during the trip I took with my brother. Again, it was Sunday; again, neither of us were Catholic; again, where do you go on your first full day in Paris? Notre-Dame. This time, however, we were in Paris when Paris was hosting the World Cup Games. Now, there were no ropes that I could remember because ropes could not contain us all. It felt like there were at least 1500 people there – maybe more. Our week in Paris was during the quarter finals, and as a whole, soccer nations are also Catholic nations, and everyone who was Catholic and in Paris wanted to worship at Notre-Dame. As the service began, I listened intently. Somehow, though, I couldn’t understand a word of what was going on. I leaned over to my brother, “I am not following any of this, Mark.”
“That’s because it is in Latin, Michelle.” For all my intensive study of languages, my brother is far more gifted at them, particularly at spoken languages. He then explained to me that all the priests overseeing the service were from different parts of the world – one from Africa, one from Argentina, one from Brazil, two from Italy, and two from France, including, he thought, the Archbishop. They were using their shared language to conduct the service for the whole world, and that shared language in this case was Latin.
When we sang, there was a gentleman from Africa behind us who sang with just pure joy. I turned once and looked at him, and I had never seen such awe and happiness across a human’s face before. And he had, hands down, the most God-awful singing voice I have ever heard, and I could have stood there and listened to him forever just to be in the presence of that joy.
It was the people singing in the streets as she burned, all together from all over the world, that reminded me of that worship in Notre-Dame. As I sat swirling in those memories, in those two very distinct experiences that took place in the same location, something occurred to me.
Notre-Dame is my church.
Because you see, my church is also small in number, and seems to get smaller with each year. We have a tendency to rope ourselves off from a world that is seeking to be struck with awe, that desperately takes pictures of everything from new outfits to luscious desserts because the people who are touristing through life are really desperate to find something meaningful, something worthwhile. They have bought the narrative of consumerism because people are actually actively presenting that narrative to them, while Christians have the world’s greatest story of truth and significance, but we keep leaning over the ropes and asking people to keep the noise down instead of folding into the crowd and sharing the story. We could be showing the picture of what will really heal them of all that emptiness, what will really cause them to fall down in wonder and worship. Instead too often we roll our eyes at the noise around us, shrug it off, and focus deeply on a ritual that many of us don’t even fully understand.
But also, my church is made up of people from all over the world. When we choose to ignore the details that cause us to squabble, when we unite around our shared faith in Jesus Christ, we create beautiful music. What was once discordant and broken suddenly becomes the most profound expression of joy, and it is contagious and causes others to want to stand with us because we all do really know how to be one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world. We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord. We can weep together, we can laugh together, we can change the world together. Why? Because we know when everything seems to be falling apart, when it feels like the world is burning down and fire and debris threaten either to bury us or consume us, we know that will not be the end of the story. We know, as sure as the cross stood on the hill as a symbol of death, so it will rise up and become an insistent sign of life. We know that this week more than ever. Good Friday is upon us. But then, Easter is coming.
So the church may burn. The temple may be destroyed. But do not give up hope. For the temple will be rebuilt. The church will rise from the ashes. For ours is nothing if not a resurrection faith.
Je t’aime Notre-Dame, et je t’aime toujours, mon seigneur Jésus le Christ.