Beauty from Ashes

By Shannon Vowell –

The inside of Notre Dame after the fire, with a view of the cross and the Nicholas Coustou sculpture “Pieta.” Photo: Christophe Petit Tesson/POOL/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock.

Tragic events just days apart infused Holy Week with grief this year. The Monday after Palm Sunday, Notre Dame de Paris – fabled icon of Gothic architecture, French history, and Catholic identity – burned … as a global audience of millions watched and wept.

Then, Easter Sunday, carefully coordinated terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka turned worship services into scenes of mayhem and murder.

No lives were lost in the fire at Notre Dame; too many lives were lost in the explosions in Sri Lanka. But the losses – of inspired architectural provenance as well as priceless human beings – intersected in the Life which both inspired the beautiful building and drew the worshipers in on Resurrection Sunday.

In responding to these events, Christians have a unique opportunity to honor the dead and encourage the living by pointing to that Life. Only in Jesus Christ can we find a meaningful response to the charred remains of Notre Dame; only in Jesus Christ can we find comfort and hope as we mourn the lives of Christian brothers and sisters martyred on Easter morning. In response to these events, Christians are invited to affirm, proclaim, and praise.

1. Affirm the ongoing relevance of the gospel of Jesus Christ in a broken world – even in postmodern culture.

Much has been written about the explicitly, even vehemently secular nature of the modern French state. In a country that outlaws all expressions of religion in public schools and government buildings, a Catholic cathedral as an official symbol is literally a contradiction in terms. Notre Dame’s beloved national status and international place as top tourist-attraction has long belied the core principles on which France stakes its collective identity. The images captured by thousands of cameras as Notre Dame burned clearly illustrated this division. Supposedly-post-Christian Parisians knelt on sidewalks, praying fervently, and firefighters formed a human chain to save the Cathedral’s relics – including what is claimed to be Jesus’ crown of thorns. The priorities of the rescue operation – what was seen as “treasure” worth taking risks to salvage – spoke as loudly as the photos of the kneeling throngs: this secular state still prizes the sacred, if (until now) mostly in secret.

Paradoxically, national anguish over the fire has done more to foment French unity than anything in recent memory. What does this suggest about the failure of laïcité – that uniquely French notion that the state must banish faith in order to produce modern “tolerance”? Contrast the bitter divisions over economic policies and politics generally (gilets jaunes riots, for example) with the displays of generosity and cooperation that have dominated French public life since the fire. It is hard to miss the implications.

Notre Dame is certainly “more” than a church. Her significance to art and architectural history is unique; her place in French history and French literature equally so. But the specific aspect of Notre Dame as a church dominates conversations about her future. As Wall Street Journal columnist William McGurn pointed out, “Mary’s name is now on every lip (in France) – Notre Dame, our Lady – and French government ministers are talking about “miracles” and the “soul” of a nation.”

In the aftermath of the fire, this movement toward the idea of God in French conversation recalls the image of “beauty from ashes,” Isaiah’s vision of God’s redeeming power. Who better than Christians to point that out?

2. Proclaim the Church as the Body of Christ – and the bodies of Christians as the Church.

Jesus Christ as God in the flesh sets the template for a faith that is never disembodied. An empty church building – however spectacular – can never be the Church. Conversely, a group of believers gathered together in a field are intrinsically, emphatically the Church.

The situation in Sri Lanka – where damage to buildings is an afterthought and loss of human life is the main story – underscores this truth: these believers were the Church. The violence done to them was done to them as individuals but also done to Jesus, as they were individually part of his Body, the Church.

The good news of the gospel is embedded in this understanding, because as we see these dead as literally members of Christ’s own Body, we must logically see these dead as alive with Christ, even now. Christ rose on Easter morning; these believers in Christ who died on Easter morning must therefore be risen with him.

The Church, the Body of Christ / the bodies of Christians, is eternally secured because of Easter. No act of terrorism – no attack on the Church – can have the final word. Christ, the Living Word, has already defeated death. Facing the graves of the martyrs must mean, always, facing the empty tomb – and the risen Lord.

One of the unique characteristics of Christian faith is its embrace of the physical, material realm as God’s good creation while simultaneously pointing beyond the physical, material realm to God’s perfect heaven. Living this life to the full, in the fullness of Christ, ultimately segues to living with Christ in the flesh in eternity. No other faith shares this continuum of connectivity with a Savior who is both personal and universal. We must offer the world Christ, if we are to offer the world any hope in the aftermath of events like the Easter massacres in Sri Lanka.

3. Praise God for his mercies and grace, especially when narratives of hate and hopelessness dominate.

Officials in Sri Lanka are trading accusations, and blame may well be apportioned as the issue of whether the attacks there were preventable becomes clear. Survivors face ordeals of identifying and burying the dead, and beyond that of negotiating life in a permanently altered state – groping toward a “new normal.” Sri Lankan national history looks set to be co-opted, again; recent years of mostly peaceful co-habitation may skew in this newly imported terrorism targeting Christians backward – toward years of violent conflict around ethnic difference. All that is factually true, and part of the story, but not the whole story.

Important to telling the rest of the story: Christianity in Sri Lanka has persisted as a thriving minority, perhaps since the 1st century. (Ancient tradition credits the Apostle Thomas with planting the first seeds of Christianity, after his preaching tour of India. The Nestorian Christian community – and its famed Anuradhapura cross – give credence to this tradition. Roman Catholicism arrived in the 16th century, with Portuguese traders. Then the Dutch imported Protestantism in the 17th century. Why is this so incredible? Because Buddhism has been the State religion since 250 B.C.) The Church in Sri Lanka has survived centuries of challenges which included colonialism, ethnic strife and civil war, and abject poverty. God’s faithfulness to His Body in Sri Lanka has been demonstrated over centuries; God’s faithfulness to Sri Lanka will persist throughout and beyond this most recent atrocity.

Tragedies have uncanny power to focus our minds and hearts. The urgency of grief dissolves extraneous distractions; pain forces our attention.

So, what does God want us to see, when we look at the soot-flecked façade of Notre Dame or the bloodied walls of St. Sebastian’s church in Negombo? Where should our focus be? If we can discern the ongoing relevance of the gospel of Jesus Christ, even in a postmodern culture – if we can see the Body of Christ as the Church, embodied in the bodies of Christians – if we can see the story of redemption and hope that God tells, no matter how horrific circumstances appear – then our pain can be useful in mitigating the pain of others. And our words, as they point to the Word, will be God’s means of bringing that beauty from ashes and making all things new. This is a holy calling. A holy task. A holy privilege.

Shannon Vowell writes and teaches on loving Christ and making disciples.

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