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It occurred to everyone at some point while watching Notre Dame burn: “I wish it were yesterday again. Or 5 o’clock this morning. I wish we could go back and change the ending.”
Notre Dame was to Parisians like a lot of people’s aging mothers: You didn’t visit them as often as you should have, but you felt somehow better knowing they were there. I know I felt better knowing Notre Dame de Paris was there. Christopher Columbus (for whom the Gothic cathedral was already ancient) felt better knowing it was there. I didn’t even have to see it; it was enough that it sat on the Île de la cité.
This is because we were made for beauty. And beauty is such a relief.
We were made for permanence also. Notre Dame promised permanence. Started in 1160 by men who knew they wouldn’t see it finished, the edifice survived kings and climate, and even that most destructive of forces, the atheism of the 1790s Revolution. (In 1977, 21 of the 28 decapitated heads of the statues of the kings of Judah that had graced the west façade were unearthed by workers behind the wall of a Parisian mansion.)
I wonder how God sees the burning of Notre Dame. Does He weep over its blackened ribs and buttresses? Is the Almighty sentimental? Here He speaks to Baruch as contumacious Israel crumbles all around him: “O Baruch: You said, ‘Woe is me! For the Lord has added sorrow to my pain. I am weary with my groaning, and I find no rest.’… Behold, what I have built I am breaking down, and what I have planted I am plucking up—that is, the whole land” (Jeremiah 45:1-4).
This is no unmoved Mover. And if Jesus would not join the chest-puffing of His disciples over the Second Temple’s courts and balustrades, it is because He was seeing it 40 years hence and was already sad: “‘Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down’” (Mark 13:1-2).
When temples fall—and churches, lands, and all—godly men will fear before they hurry for their shovels.
When temples fall—and churches, lands, and all—godly men will fear before they hurry for their shovels. Prideful boasts are not in order: “The Lord has sent a word against Jacob, and it will fall on Israel; and all the people will know, Ephraim and the inhabitants of Samaria, who say in pride and in arrogance of heart: ‘The bricks have fallen, but we will build with dressed stones; the sycamores have been cut down, but we will put cedars in their place.’” (Isaiah 9:8-10).
God does not disparage the spirit of architecture He Himself has put in man to revel in; ask Oholiab and Bezalel. He only cautions that we worship the Creator and not the creation: “Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment” (Ecclesiastes 11:9).
The Twin Towers were here for all of five minutes. Living on the Eastern Seaboard, there was a time when I sped past the Manhattan skyline on Interstate 95 and they weren’t there. Then a time later when I sped past and they were there. And now I pass again and they aren’t there. As if it were a fleeting dream.
Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, the hideous Centre Pompidou, One World Trade Center, and the Taj Mahal—the whole of the “musée sans murs” that Malraux called earth’s art—“are stored up for fire” (2 Peter 3:7). “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2).
But the last word, O faithful ones, will be rebuilding:
“O afflicted one, storm-tossed and not comforted, behold, I will set your stones in antimony, and lay your foundations with sapphires. I will make your pinnacles of agate, your gates of carbuncles, and all your walls of precious stones” (Isaiah 54:11-12).