April 17th Newsletter
On the night of July 15, 1823, fire broke out at the The Basilica of St. Paul Outside-the-Walls in Rome, Italy. The Church was ancient and important even by Roman standards. Commissioned in 324, it was erected over the site where Christians venerated the tomb of St. Paul the Apostle, who was martyred in Rome and buried outside the city walls. Over the centuries, the church was enlarged and restored numerous times to include magnificent Byzantine doors and priceless sacred art. Until St. Peter’s Basilica was completed in 1626, St. Paul’s-Outside-the-Walls was the biggest basilica in Rome. On that fateful day in 1823, a workman repairing the lead roof sparked the fire that led to the near total destruction of the church. Despite the tragic loss, efforts to rebuild began in earnest in a worldwide effort: pillars were sent from Egypt; precious stones from Russia. It was rebuilt, apparently, to look just as it did prior to the fire. In 1854, visitors from around the world gathered to celebrate and commission the rebuilt basilica. Two years ago, the DaySpring group Jenny and I led visited the church and prayed at the tomb of St. Paul. We’ll go again this summer with the group going on pilgrimage. It is an impressive place to say the least.
Watching the near destruction of Notre Dame in Paris on Monday, my heart sank at the loss of another irreplaceable testimony of Christian worship. Yet, I also know it can be rebuilt. St. Paul’s gives testimony to that. It’s not “just a building.” Spiritual places of history and beauty matter now as much as ever. I believe Notre Dame can and will be rebuilt. Dedicated and brilliant people will determine how to go about that process. Part of me hopes it won’t be an effort to exactly replicate what was there as if the fire didn’t happen. Rather, I hope what arises from those ashes is a renewal of French and European Christian spirituality written in stone and wood. Everyone knows that in Europe, Christianity is becoming a historical relic. So let Notre Dame rise to her new life not just as an icon of medieval glory, but as a sign of the living faith that makes such a grand sanctuary possible and for which it exists. Let it be both what it was and something new and fresh. Let it not just be rebuilt. Let it be a sign of resurrection.
That Notre Dame burned on Holy Week is both inescapable pathos and hope. Yes, as the reporters reminded us, the church would have seen throngs of visitors come for Easter services and so it’s obviously a tremendous loss at the most important time of year for Christians. But it also now stands as a looming sign of the grievous darkness of Good Friday that must be overcome by the triumph of Easter. Christianity is not a system of nostalgia for the past, but a renewal of what was and is through death and resurrection. We grieve what is lost, and we hope beyond hope for what will be. If Notre Dame’s only hope were as a museum piece of the past, then it would be among all churches most to be pitied. Thanks be to God for what it was and for what it will be for generations to come.
I’ve been fortunate to visit beautiful churches in many parts of the world. I’m not sure I’d trade many of them for Holy Week here. The staff meets today to begin to prepare the sanctuary and ground for our services this weekend. I hope you’ll be able to come.
Renewed in gratitude for beauty and DaySpring’s sacred and simple spaces,
For more updates and events, click here to view the April 17th newsletter.