Covenanters ‘Hijacked by Horror and Grief’ Over Cathedral Fire

photo by Mae Elise Cannonn

CHICAGO, IL (April 16, 2019) – It took only a few moments for the Notre Dame Cathedral to change the life of Covenant pastor Don Johnson.

Johnson and his wife, Martha, were celebrating their fifteenth wedding anniversary in 1990, when he entered the cathedral as “a dumb tourist.”

“When I casually walked through the portals into the nave I was overwhelmed with the sense, for the first time in my life of genuinely sacred space,” Johnson said. “I had no word, just tears of awe and wonder. That experience planted in me the search for what makes space sacred, which became the topic for both of my sabbatical lives in France, 2000 and 2013.”

Johnson said he was “hijacked by horror and grief” when he learned of the fire. “I love her deep history and survival of wars, scoundrels and time…until the fire.”

Francisco and Stephanie Ramos, Covenanters who lead a ministry to Christian artists and operate a gallery in Paris, said, “Notre Dame inspires all of France, not only as a beautiful cathedral but also as an expression of its history. Watching the fire was like watching 900 years of history go up in flames.”

Throughout that history, the church has evoked the kind of awe experienced by Johnson, they said. “The arts speak to us in ways that go beyond our intellect and we were created to experience the greatness of God through all of our senses. So in this place all of the arts inspired one to worship God – the beauty of the stained glass, sculpture and stone, the size and majesty of the architecture, the music and singing for worship, and the smell of incense. It served both to speak about the greatness and majesty of God while also sharing the gospel story when most people were unable to read.”

College student Noah Tang, a member of Naperville Covenant Church who is on Spring Break in Paris, said, “to see hundreds of years of history vanish before my eyes was unspeakable.”

Tang stood on the banks of the Seine River across from the cathedral this morning. “Thousands of people were in the streets just staring,” he said. “Some were crying, some were taking pictures, and there was even a group of artists drawing the building.”

A cellist sitting on the bank across from the church today played a mournful tune that reflected the mood. “I have never seen a city so somber before,” Tang said.

Covenant minister Mae Elise Cannon, executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace, also is in Paris and had heard the cathedral bells ringing just an hour before the fire started. She told Religion News Service last night, that, “Tonight’s burning of the Cathedral of Notre Dame is not only the destruction of a national treasure, but reflects a devastating loss of permanence and sacred spirituality not only for Catholics, Christians of various ecumenical traditions but for people of all religions that value the relationship between God and humankind.”

Matt Randles did a six-month interim pastorate at the Trinity International Church of Paris, last year. The church’s office was just across the bridge from the cathedral. “Never, never imagined something as cataclysmic as this would happen,” he said. “I was living there during the terrorist attacks in 2015 as well; a totally different tragedy and yet the sense of shock and mourning takes me back to that experience.”

The pain of watching the church go up in flames was compounded because it is Holy Week, Covenanters said. The Ramoses added, however, “We think that all things work together for good even during this Holy week, and we pray that the spiritual influence of the Cathedral and what it represents in France may continue in spite of the tragedy.”

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About the Author

Stan Friedman is the news and online editor for the Covenant Companion and is grateful for the opportunity to serve in a job that combines his newspaper and pastoral ministry experience. He has been to 15 Bruce Springsteen concerts in four cities and listened to “Thunder Road” an average of at least once a day for 41 years.

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  1. Well said sir, well said!! Our Fathers love is never ending, unchanging, always omnipotent.
    Again, well said, and Tennessee Ernie Ford’s words are profound truth.

  2. I agree with Brian Smith that although Notre Dame’s loss is a historical loss and rightly an emotional loss by the French people, it is not the loss of God’s Presence. This week in Bible Study, I studied I Kings 7 & 8 which is the account of the building and dedication of the beautiful Temple by Solomon in Jerusalem. At the dedication, the glory of God filled the temple as a cloud. The temple was a picture of Christ’s death for us so that now as Christians, God dwells in us individually and collectively through His Holy Spirit. God dwells with his people, not in a building built of stone and wood which can be destroyed, but by the death and resurrection of Jesus resulting in the Holy Spirit dwelling in each of our hearts. We as Christians celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ on Easter.

  3. May God bring special blessings and redemption for all those who are broken-hearted in France. As Stephanie and Francisco Ramos write above, this cathedral has helped people experience God in ways that go beyond our intellect. May the grieving know that as they give glory to God in the new heaven and earth, in some sense they will also bring the unique glory and honor that God has created, in each nation (Rev. 21:24-26). Let’s remember that the visual arts and architecture as well as music (and the Word of course), are a vital part of our communities and our worship–that didn’t change with the Reformation.

  4. Stan, On the one hand, the loss of much of the Notre Dame cathedral and its art treasures is indeed a cultural tragedy. On the other, it brings into stark reality that the institutions and buildings of man – even if built to the glory of God – are transitory at best. My grandfather introduced me to the songs of the Gospel singer, Tennessee Ernie Ford. One of my favorites had the verse, “Life is filled with swift transition. None of earth unmoved can stand. Hold to one who will not fail you. Hold to God’s unchanging hand.” In a world where buildings come and go and cultures fade in and out, we would do well to latch on to His unchanging permanence that transcends them all.

    1. Thank you, Brian. I remember Tennessee Ernie Ford from back in the day. Russ Taff has a wonderful version of that song. You can find it on YouTube.

  5. A friend posted a text by Victor Hugo telling of a fire in Notre Dame in 1831 that sounded a lot like this one.

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