“Torn in two” — temples, cathedrals, and us

Text: Mark 14 and 15 (the trials and execution of Jesus)

Good Friday came early this year. For me, it came on Monday when I heard of the fire in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

Notre Dame is one of the best-known and loved religious buildings in the world. At 800-years-old, it ranks alongside places like the 500-year-old St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the 900-year-old Angkor Wat complex in Cambodia, and the 300-year-old St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

I am glad that no one was killed in the fire in Paris and that the cathedral was not totally destroyed. But the destruction caused by the fire is felt as a painful loss by many people of different backgrounds around the world.

The connection between the fire in Notre Dame and Good Friday is provided by the three references to the Temple in Jerusalem in today’s readings from Mark.

YHWH’s Temple in Jerusalem was one of the most magnificent buildings in the Mediterranean world; and it was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 CE. In that year, the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem after a four-year siege. They killed tens of thousands of Jews who had rebelled against Roman occupation; they burned the Holy City to the ground; and they took apart the magnificent Temple of YHWH stone by stone.

Mark writes that when Jesus breathes his last, the curtain of the Temple is torn in two. This might be a sign that access to the Jewish God YHWH, who was thought to reveal Himself in “the holy of holies” behind the curtain, was now available to anyone. It also cements in my mind the connection between Mark’s gospel of the life of Jesus and the Temple.

Most scholars date the death of Jesus of Nazareth to the year 30 CE, 40 years before the victory of the Romans over the Jewish rebellion and the destruction of YHWH’s Temple. But to me, the truth of the crucifixion is found as much in the horror of death and destruction in Jerusalem in the year 70 as it is in Mark’s stories about Jesus set 40 years earlier.

From the time Rome occupied Jerusalem in 63 BCE until they destroyed it in 70 CE, wave after wave of Jewish rebels tried to win their freedom. The trauma of their defeat in the year 70 rested not only in the burning of the Holy City and the deaths of tens of thousands of people, but also in the destruction of the Temple, which was considered to be the earthly home of the YHWH.

Jews from around the Mediterranean traveled to the Temple to offer animal sacrifices; and the size, beauty and magnificence of the Temple were signs of YHWH’s strength. So, by taking the Temple apart stone by stone, the Romans broke Jewish hearts. It must have seemed to them that the Romans had killed YHWH.

Easter represents the joyous reality that a new life of faith, hope and love does not depend on rebuilding sanctuaries or returning to old ways of worship. New life can flood into our hearts after disillusionment, destruction and death. Despite our losses, we can find always find new ways to love.

Following this pattern, Jews found new ways of obeying the Law of Moses in synagogues far from Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple in the year 70.

Also following this pattern, people who followed Jesus discovered they could seek faith, hope and love after his crucifixion with the help of the Inner Christ. Both Jews and Christians discovered that they didn’t need Jerusalem or its magnificent Temple to pursue justice, kindness, and humility. They only needed to share their personal stories of joy and pain, and of loss and new life, and to reflect on their lives in the light of the sacred stories of their ancestors. God was not confined to one place like the Temple, nor was God found only in one remarkable person like Jesus. God was a spiritual reality living within and between all people of good will.

Despite its magnificence, the Temple had never been heaven on earth. It was home not to a universal God who is Love, but to the tribal god YHWH. It was the site not only of animal sacrifice but also priestly corruption. And so, the loss of the Temple — although horrible and painful — did not mean the end of faith, hope and love.

Despite its magnificence, the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris is not heaven on earth. While it is a place where the Risen Christ has been worshipped for 800 years, it was constructed during the Crusades, one of the darkest moments of racism and war in the history of the church. Notre Dame was the heart of the French Church during the expansion of the French Empire in the 1600’s and 1700’s into places like Canada, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, and North Africa. Cardinals, bishops, and priests in Notre Dame supported the expansion of the Empire despite the war, conquest and genocide that it entailed.

Even after a Revolution in 1789 overthrew the French kings and the ability of a corrupt church to support their tyranny, Notre Dame was the place where Napoleon was crowned Emperor in 1803 and where the secular Presidents of France were buried.

The illusions represented by Notre Dame didn’t need to be exposed by fire. The disillusionment of the people of France in the church occurred long before Notre Dame burned on Monday. Today only five percent of people in France attend mass on a regular basis; and the rebuilding of Notre Dame will be a secular effort more than a Catholic one, I imagine.

Happily, our ability to awaken to the Risen Christ does not depend on the existence of magnificent sanctuaries. Sometimes our sacred buildings are destroyed, and these are Good Friday moments. But the Risen Christ — in all the many ways that religious or secular people name that spiritual truth – can arise as a guiding light within us following disillusionment; and it can appear as a Spirit of Love between us in acts of kindness and justice.

Buildings, as much as individuals and empires, never last forever. But Love is eternal and can never be destroyed.

On Good Friday, we remember the agony of Jesus on the cross and the loss felt by his friends. We may also remember the suffering of others who are oppressed and killed by unjust systems; and we may remember the pain of our own losses and our fragility and mortality.

Every Good Friday, we come to the foot of the cross to stare at things we might rather ignore and then wait in hope for Easter morning.

Some people prefer to skip Good Friday and rush forward to Easter, which I understand. But sometimes Good Friday thrusts itself upon as when a loved one dies or a Temple is destroyed. In such times of pain, may we remember that Friday never has the last word, and that out of Friday’s losses a strange and new life of love can arise on any Sunday.

Today we have heard the stories of Good Friday. They may have brought grief or fear to our hearts and minds. They may have reminded us of some of the pain and difficulties of our own lives.

And now we wait. We wait in prayerful silence. We wait in expectant hope. We wait and pray knowing that doing so prepares us to enter a space even larger than our grief – an empty tomb on Easter morning.

It might seem that we live in a Good Friday world. But it is a world in which every day people find paths that lead from disillusionment to a new connection to Love. This might be a world filled with too much violence, but it is also world with an even greater abundance of Grace and Love.

And for this Easter truth, we give thanks.

May it be so. Amen.

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