Flames have swept across sacred spaces in recent days, swallowing timbers and charring spirits. From Louisiana to France, churches have endured destructive infernos, creating waves of worry just ahead of Easter. The unthinkable collapse of Notre Dame’s iconic spire came just days after three African American congregations in Louisiana were destroyed by arson. In both instances, resurrection prevailed.
It all seems to be a reminder that the unimaginable often follows the unthinkable.
On Monday, the world held its breath as fire engulfed Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Flames swept across the structure’s roof, destroying about two-thirds of the centuries-old structure. Images of smoking billowing across Paris while hundreds of firefighters pushed back against the blaze prompted fears that the sacred space would be lost.
My high school French teacher’s shrill voice rang in my head: “Mais non!” Perhaps even “Que non!”
The burning of the famed cathedral added drama to Holy Week, the days leading up to the celebration of Christ’s resurrection on Easter. Having endured plagues, wars, executions and revolutions, the grand old lady was now facing her own fiery passion, and things did not look good.
But Notre Dame was not the only church to burn recently. Three African American churches in St. Landry Parish, La., burned in March. Police believe the fires were intentional and have arrested a suspect. These fires were the most recent examples of our nation’s long history of burning down black churches. While the Notre Dame fire held the world in rapt attention, the black church burnings have generated less publicity — though the cathedral’s tragedy has resulted in nearly $2 million in donations for the Louisiana churches.
To borrow a line from Guatemalan poet Julia Esquivel, the flames which consumed these sacred spaces threatened their communities with resurrection. Evil, whether spontaneous or premeditated, tried to arrest hope like a dictator’s jackbooted armies. In Esquivel’s poem, frightened voices sense they have been “threatened with resurrection” yet remain resolute in refusing to accept a death sentence.
Esquivel writes of how those who had gone before her provided encouragement to remain steadfast. She describes communities threatened by death who find strength to “reach the finish line which lies beyond death.”
We saw that in the fierce commitment of firefighters entering Notre Dame’s sacred space, risking life in search of priceless artifacts. When dawn broke on Tuesday, embers were still burning as Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo was given a hurried tour of the cathedral’s interior. What she found was terrifying and unthinkable, though not as bad as she had presumed. Hidalgo described the hole where the spire had crashed through the roof, but also noted that the main altar and cross had been preserved.
“It’s less terrible than I feared,” she told reporters.
Threatened by the unthinkable, the unimaginable happened. Easter’s hope arrived a bit early along the Seine this year. Buoyed by the world’s response and gifts from millionaires, France’s leaders vowed to make sure the grand old cathedral will rise to see one more Easter Sunday.
It is that sort of unimaginable resurrection hope that infuses black churches to rebuild— even in the face of overwhelming obstacles. Pastors in Louisiana proclaimed the love that triumphs over evil. Vowing to rebuild, the churches began preserving their own artifacts and treasures: that pulpit where God’s presence was proclaimed week after week; the pew where grandparents had worshiped; the baptismal where waters of new life washed over those professing faith in the Risen Lord.
These signs of hope seem like reminders of the risen Jesus breaking into the room where the fear-filled disciples were gathered following his crucifixion. According to John’s Gospel, the Risen Lord breaks through shuttered doors and locked windows, breathing peace upon them and bringing them the promise of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit warms their frozen hearts, preparing them for the commission Jesus offers. The unthinkable prompts the unimaginable.
And still they rise — a powerful indicator that resurrection is more than an abstract concept but is instead a profound experience of the spirit.
Keating serves as pastor of the Woodlawn Chapel Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Wildwood. He is a regular Faith Perspectives contributor to STLtoday.com/religion.