The Day Notre Dame Burned and the Day Jesus Died: A Good Friday Reflection

The cross inside Notre Dame that is still standing after the fire this week. Picture was taken before the fire. (To see the cross after the fire, google it online for some profound pictures. I didn’t include them here because of usage rights.)

Sermon by the Rev. Kristen Yates – originally delivered at The Mission Cincinnati on Good Friday, April 19, 2019.

For an audio recording of this sermon, click here.

So probably most of you, by now, are aware of the catastrophe that struck Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France earlier this week.  Like many others, I was surprised and saddened Monday afternoon when I started to see Facebook after Facebook post of Notre Dame Cathedral burning down.  My friends of all stripes – Christians, artists, historians, and lovers of France – looked on in horror and took to social media to lament the destruction that was happening to this beautiful 800-year-old church right before their very eyes.  

In the beginning hours of the fire, many people feared that after centuries of existence, this iconic church and much of its priceless artwork and religious items would be lost forever.  A great sadness fell upon the people of France and around the world, and crowds of people gathered just a few blocks away to pray and to sing hymns.  

By Tuesday morning, the fire was out.  While devastating damaged had occurred to the Cathedral, thankfully all had not been lost, and it was clear that it could be rebuilt.  And most interestingly enough, despite all the damage that had occurred, in the center of the church, among the blackened walls and floors, and burnt-up pews, the cross – that great symbol of life and resurrection – remained firmly in place untouched by the fires.

What an interesting image to reflect upon during Holy Week.  Actually, the whole event, while terribly sad, is an interesting one to reflect upon during this sacred week.   

As I watched the events unfold on Monday and Tuesday, I couldn’t help but compare and contrast this event, though it was very different of course, with the events occurring to Jesus in the last days of his ministry.   There was just something about the juxtaposition of the fire and Holy Week that struck me.

In terms of similarities, both the people lamenting Notre Dame as well as the disciples who had put their hopes in Jesus for restoring Israel were greatly devastated and quite honestly, in shock.  This pillar in their lives, this icon which had brought them some kind of meaning and identity, was being taken away right before their very eyes.  Their future was uncertain.  At that moment in time, they didn’t know that in the end, while life would never look the same going forward and that scars would remain, life would ultimately triumph over death and destruction.   But, in the moment, all they could feel was sadness and devastation because they didn’t know.  

I found this similarity very interesting.

That being said, it was not this similarity between these two very different events that struck me the most this week. What struck me the most were the contrasts.   

So while Notre Dame Cathedral, a Church built to glorify Jesus, was clearly much loved by people of all over the world, Jesus, himself, the reason for the Cathedral, was much hated by the crowds of people gathered around him in his last days.  

While the crowds of people in Paris gathered in close proximity to the cathedral to sing hymns and to pray, the crowds of people gathered around Jesus during his last days called for his crucifixion.  

While people all over France pledged all kind of money to save the cathedral and to rebuild it as they watched it burn, the people closest to Jesus, his disciples, for the most part did not try to save him, the exception being Peter (at least at first), and most of his disciples were not there with him as he hung on the cross.  Most of his disciples, except for a handful of women and the apostle John, had long abandoned him and long abandoned the idea of continuing on his movement.  

And while teams of firemen ultimately saved Notre Dame and many people felt relief, Jesus was left to die on the cross and few were there to witness this, to take down his body from the cross, and then to bury him in his tomb.  

I don’t know if this strikes you in the same way as it does me, but for some reason, these contrasts affect me in deep places in my soul this week.  So much love for a building that was built to glorify Jesus, while when Jesus was alive, there so was so little love and care for him.  

Instead, there was so much hatred and fear, which led Jesus to being rejected, tortured, abandoned, and then killed on a cross.  And even now, there is still so much hatred and fear towards Jesus and his followers. While this one house of God, Notre Dame, is being honored, and rightly so, many other houses of God abroad and even on our own soil are being decimated on a regular basis and barely anyone takes notice.  And so many believers in Christ in this world, the actual Church, are being killed on a daily basis, and again, barely any attention is given to them.  (Although, I know Jesus, himself, weeps for them.)

And what about us believers? Might it be true from time to time that we love the trappings of Christianity better than we love Christ himself?

Now, don’t get me wrong. In making these last comments, I am not suggesting in any way that it is wrong to lament Notre Dame’s fire this week. Indeed, as a beautiful house of God, which has turned people’s gaze heavenward for centuries, we should lament this turn of events, but I am reminded this week that even more than this,we should lament the tragedy that Holy Week makes clear to us – unfortunately we are not just the kind of people who want to see sacred places like Notre Dame preserved, we are also the kind of people who reject and abandon Jesus.  We are not just the kind of people who welcome Jesus as our king with joy and fanfare as he enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, we are also the kind of people who call for Jesus’ crucifixion.

When Jesus does not meet our expectations, which he often does not; and when Jesus asks us to live differently than perhaps we might prefer, which he often does, we so easily turn against him.  All of us have done this at one point or another in our lives.  Friends, do we lament over this reality?

Despite our outward displays of love for the things of God (whether Notre Dame, our liturgy, or whatever); despite the ways we seek to bring glory to God through our worship, work, creativity, and compassionate response to others; we are a people who regularly disobey and mistrust God.  We are a people who sometimes prefer the Gifts God gives us rather than the Giver Himself.  We are a people who regularly sin, and it is this sin that led Jesus to be crucified on a cross two thousand years ago. This is what I kept on thinking about all week along as the events unfolded – there is a deep contradiction that exists within each and everyone of us.

And this, friends, is what we must wrestle with on this Good Friday. It is our sins that brought Jesus to this place.  We must place ourselves among the crowd of scoffers and among the guards who tortured him and nailed him to the cross. We cannot hide behind our piety or good works, no matter how genuine or beautiful they may be.  Jesus died because of our sins.  

Sometimes, however, I think we want to ignore this most important fact.  Its why we often want to skip over Good Friday and go directly to Easter Sunday.   

After all, it is not popular in our culture to talk about sin.  It’s not even popular to talk about sin in certain church contexts.  But friends, we must talk about it.   Even for those of us who have put our trust in Jesus, we continue to sin against God by mistrusting him, disobeying him, taking on various idols, and mistreating or ignoring his creation and his people. 

This is why we gather on this night, for our sin is not negligible.  It is a big problem that creates a chasm between us and God.  This is what the Christian faith teaches and has always taught.  God is Holy and we are not, and the radical truth is that holiness and ungodliness cannot be together.  Now in itself, this is really terrible news for us, but thank goodness, there is good news to outweigh this bad news.

In addition to our lament and our sadness over our sins on this particular day in the Church Calendar, we also have room to celebrate.  This in fact is why we call this day Good Friday.  

You see, while a chasm has existed between us and God ever since Adam and Eve first sinned, God has been behind the scenes since the beginning of time working to remove that chasm. God has always wanted to restore us to right relationship with himself, for while God is holy, he is also love at his very center, and he has never wanted to be separated from his people. 

We first saw this thousands of years ago, when God called out the people Israel to be a special people and made a way for them to be in relationship with him, their Holy God. He dwelled within their midst, but even still, a gap between their unholy ways and God’s holiness was clear. 

This gap was symbolized and actually institutionalized by the sacrificial system, in which people had to bring pure animals and other offerings before the Lord in order to make atonement and to draw near to Him.  

This gap was also made manifest by the veil in the Temple, which physically separated God’s presence from his people.  

So God drew close to his people, but nevertheless, visual reminders of that gap remained and deeper intimacy with God could not be attained. 

Yet, God had a further plan. At the right time, he would close the gap once and for all, and he would do this through the event we are remembering tonight, the Crucifixion.  

You see in this moment, there was more at play than just a bunch of hateful, ignorant, and sinful people putting Jesus to death.  

God was behind the scenes at work in a profound way. 

You see, as Jesus was dying on the cross and crying out to his Father, “Oh God oh God, why have you forsaken me?,” He was experiencing what one of my colleagues, the Rev. Sam Ferguson, has called the Great Separation and the Great Solution.  The Great Separation was that moment when Jesus, the Second person of the Trinity, was completely abandoned by the Father. That utter closeness that Jesus had always experienced with the Father was now gone and when Jesus looked to the Father in His greatest moment of pain and need and in his hour of death, there was utter darkness.  Utter Silence.  Utter Abandonment.  

Then Jesus died, and in a very real, devastating sense, Jesus in His humanity experienced a cataclysmic separation from the Father.   And this is where God was doing work behind the scenes – in that moment, Jesus was taking on the entirely and weight of humanity’s sins and as a result, he experienced that awful darkness, that awful separation that each one of us should experience because of our sins.  The Scriptures are clear that the “wages of sin are death” – physical death, death to our relationship with God, and utter darkness and complete separation.  And that is what Jesus experienced in that moment. 

Yet, just when Jesus was in the throes of such separation and when he breathed his last breath, something amazing happened in the Temple.  The veil in the Temple tore in two.  From its very top to its very bottom, it tore.  And the physical barrier that had existed between God and his people ceased to exist.  

You see, this Great Separation – this utter darkness, abandonment, and physical death that Jesus experienced –  was also the Great Solution.  Jesus took our place.  He took our judgement.  He demonstrated his holiness and executed his righteousness while at the same time opening up the means in which all people would no longer have to be separated from the Father because of their sins.    The people would no longer have to bring sacrificial animals to God to atone for their sins because Jesus had become the once and for all sacrificial lamb.  All people had to do from now on was believe in Jesus.  

The separation that existed between God and us could finally be wiped away, and room could now be made for the Holy Spirit to come and dwell in the hearts of all people who believed in Jesus and in his miraculous and salvific work.  True intimacy between us and God could finally happen.  As Isaiah 53 says, “he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that brought us peace, and by his wounds we are healed.”

Thus, the Crucifixion, which resulted in The Great Separation, also became Humanity’s ultimate Great Solution.  And even now, days before Jesus rose from the dead, that future event that demonstrated that Jesus could not ultimately be touched or destroyed by Hell, the torn veil in the temple was a sign of this future reality.  Easter Sunday had not yet come, but it was indeed coming!

Friends, as I close up my time with you this evening, I want to acknowledge the fact that many of us live much of our lives in Good Friday and in Holy Saturday moments.  Death, destruction, disorientation, disillusion, disappointment, and a turning away from Jesus mark much of our lives, just as they did for Jesus’ disciples in the midst of the events of the crucifixion. 

But, there is good news. Easter is coming, and signs of life are already appearing all around us.  The Holy Spirit is working within us to convict us of our sin and to transform us more and more into the likeness of Jesus.  Signs of the New Creation abound.  There is hope.  

Therefore, on this Good Friday, I invite us to lament our sins and remember that our sins led to Jesus’ crucifixion – we cannot forget this.  Truly, we are a people of deep contradiction.  At the same time, I invite us to remember that Easter is coming and to see the  torn veil in the Temple and the untouched cross still hanging in the burnt-up Notre Dame Cathedral as visual reminders of this future reality. 

Death and destruction do not have the last word.  Jesus does, and his last word is about eternal life and flourishing. Let us thank God for this good news.  In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.