A Testing By Fire

Jesus teaches, “There will be more joy in Heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance. … I tell you, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” I suspect the world’s heartbroken reaction to seeing Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral ablaze resembles how the angels in Heaven mourn the loss of one soul.

On the day of the fire, many feared that this 12th century church honoring “Our Lady,” which took 182 years to build, was no more. But thankfully, the destruction appears limited to its massive oak beam roof. Its tall limestone walls and celebrated stained-glass windows reportedly survived with minor damage. The great cathedral will be resurrected, yet this event should be a wake-up call, a reminder that the most precious of things can be neglected and lost forever.

It is right and good that buildings for the worship of God should be strikingly beautiful. John’s Gospel recalls how less than a week before Jesus’ Passion, Judas Iscariot criticized Mary of Bethany for wasting wealth; using an expensive, fragrant ointment to adore Jesus rather than help the poor. But Christians are called to both – with our worship inspiring and guiding our charity – and no time in history has been wealthier to do both than ours. Notre Dame Cathedral, even now amid ashes and debris, draws souls to closer God. In this is its true value.

In itself, though great in age or size, a church is a less precious thing than its visitors. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Nations, cultures, arts, civilization — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” The famous author of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe adds, “All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.” Our own choices help lead ourselves in one direction or the other, too.

Many will come to church for Easter this Sunday and that is well, but we must do more. Our faith in Jesus Christ must be our life’s foundation and, as St. Paul says, “each one must be careful how he builds upon it… If anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, the work of each will come to light, for the Day [of Judgment] will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each one’s work.” As the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, “our God is a consuming fire.” A trial by fire came to France’s great cathedral and, by the grace of God worthy of our praise, it survived. “In just the same way,” Jesus says of souls, “it is not the will of your heavenly Father that one of these little ones be lost.” So let us carefully consider what is truly precious and what we value, what we have been choosing and what we will choose now beyond this Easter morning.

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