In April 2019, the world watched in horror as the historic church of Notre Dame was gutted by fire. A dramatic moment came when the 19th-century spire came crashing down and the future of the great building seemed uncertain. Oak trees donated from across France had been used in the construction of the building and the good news is that once again oak trees are being gathered across France as restoration proceeds. The trees must be between 100 and 200 years old and those intended for roof timbers long enough to support an overhead curve of 65 feet.
Tomorrow's Old Testament reading (1 Kings 8) is an account of the dedication of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem circa 950 BC. A feature of that building was the large quantity of cedarwood from Lebanon that was used, the result of a deal done between King Solomon and the King of Tyre who also provided craftsmen to work on the building. Solomon used forced labour among the Israelites to quarry stones and transport them to the site. There are detailed records in the Bible of the layout of the building which point to its importance to the Jewish people, just as Notre Dame is important to the people of France today.
Tomorrow’s psalm (84) takes us inside the Temple to remind us of its spiritual significance: “How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts! My soul longs, indeed, it faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.”
This psalm would have been used by pilgrims perhaps paying a once in a lifetime visit to this sacred place. Such feelings can of course apply just as much to the smallest and plainest of churches where faith has been nurtured and memories of family baptisms, weddings, and funerals linger. God’s promise recorded in Exodus makes the point: “In all places where I cause my name to be remembered, I will come to you and bless you.”
Johannes Brahms completed his German Requiem following the deaths of his mother in 1865 and his friend Robert Schumann some years earlier. The magnificent How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place, using words from psalm 84, was the first of several movements to be written. Brahms was an intensely private man and we don't know what his religious beliefs were except that he was confirmed in the Lutheran church and knew the Bible thoroughly. His German requiem was controversial because he did not use traditional Latin texts, choosing instead words from Luther's German translation of the Bible that not only mourned the dead but also comforted the living. This departure from tradition caused unease with Church authorities and to calm their fears "I know that my Redeemer Liveth" from Handel's Messiah was sometimes added to performances.
Brahms's need for comfort is the experience of all who mourn. No matter how wonderful and reassuring ritual or liturgy may be, loss is real and devastating: the love, the touch, the companionship, the life shared – human be-ing seemingly no longer. It is in such moments of despair that our Christian faith encourages us to trust the promise of God revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that every life, including those we love who have died, has an eternal purpose and meaning, that there is a life dimension beyond the here and now. This is a God-given hope, not an invention by those who cannot face reality. The first Letter of Peter makes that clear: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you."
The onetime archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, said "No resurrection. No Christianity" and, one might add, no Notre Dame.