“It’s just a building, but it is more than a building.” These are the first words that ran through my mind when my colleagues, Frank and Drew, and I gathered around a computer screen to watch and lament as flames engulfed Notre-Dame de Paris on Monday.
Unlike many religious traditions, Christianity does not center around holy places, but upon a sanctified person: Jesus of Nazareth. The Kingdom of God breaks into the world, not at sacred monuments, but wherever God’s people worship “in spirit and in truth.” God is no less likely to hear prayers that are spoken in a storefront, a hospital room, or on a back porch than in a cathedral.
Yet, for one reason or another, people of faith throughout the centuries have seen fit to mark specific places like Notre-Dame as uniquely sacred. Why? The Parisian cathedral’s formative role in world history is indisputable. The stocky towers of its façade have borne witness to wars, reformations, and revolutions. Its cruciform structure, still visible to the Heavenly One for whom it was built, has long stood as a physical manifestation of a metaphysical declaration. This place, these people, belong to God in Jesus Christ.
Whether or not you’ve stood beneath the rose windows that still shape the sunlight before it enters the nave of that ancient house of worship, you can probably recall a place that is holy to you. Maybe your mind shifts to the Chapel where you celebrated your wedding, the Sanctuary in which your child was baptized, or the coffee shop where you met a friend who changed your life. If you were to step back into those places this week, they might seem a bit closer to heaven than the rest of the world.
Places are just places. Buildings are just buildings, but they are also something more. They hold memories, memories of people who give shape and add texture to our lives and the life of the world. To assume that God is more present in one place than another is problematic. To recognize that a place can be made holy by memories, stories, and human ingenuity is to open oneself to creative expressions of God’s salvation story. When seen as a beacon, rather than a bushel, a building serves as a visible sign of an invisible grace that declares the in-breaking of the holy into the mundane, the divine into the human, and the heavenly into the daily.
We find ourselves amid Holy Week, journeying toward the raised cross and the open tomb. Our hearts are with the people of Paris as they search for a place to celebrate the Lord’s voyage from death to resurrection. In our mourning, let us not lose sight of what makes a place holy, whether it is in France or Pennsylvania. May we pause to reflect upon the sacred places and spaces that keep perpetual vigil over the memories and stories that shape us.
I challenge you to spend some time this Holy Week in the spaces that our congregation has dedicated “to the glory of God,” and thereby consecrated as sacrosanct. Why did our not-so-distant forebears in faith design our church building the way they did? Whom do our windows, sculptures, and paintings memorialize? What is admirable about the lives they lived? What memories, good and bad, does this place hold? Where have we chosen to visualize Good Friday lament and Easter joy? How does the story that our building tells call us to live in the world today?