On Monday evening, as I suspect so many of us did, I watched the pictures coming live from Paris in a mixture of shock and disbelief as Notre Dame Cathedral blazed. The more I watched, the worse it looked and when an aerial shot was shown of what looked like an empty shell only filled with burning timbers, it looked like total destruction. What we couldn’t see was the stone vaulting was holding out. It was the total destruction of the roof timbers, but not of the whole building. A hole was punched through that vaulting when the central spire came crashing down, but that is minor in comparison to what might have been and we now know that they were within only half an hour of losing the whole cathedral. Of course the smoke and water damage will be significant, and Peterborough knows this all too well from the fire in the Cathedral two decades ago now. Five years to restore it seems an ambitious target to me.
I remember walking past St Peter’s Eton Square in London 30 years ago, walking from Victoria Station towards the office where I worked just the other side of the wall from Buckingham Palace tennis courts. The church was ablaze. An arsonist had set fire to it first thing in the morning. When I got to work many were in shock and it affected even those with little or no church connection. Churches stand as symbols of stability, security and the soul of life; they stand and represent spirituality in its widest sense. Many more associate with them and connect with them than ascribe to the narrative of the faith they represent. To see one on fire shakes more of us to the core than we might expect.
Tonight we pause to reflect on the events of the day. A service in the evening on Good Friday is a moment after the events. In our real time journey, this is a moment when the shock begins to hit home. The body has been buried and the first disciples were left with grief, may be numbness. Tonight reminds us of our mortality, where we come from dust and ashes and return to dust and ashes. We do this reflecting not in despair but in the hope of the resurrection that comes through Christ. And so our Good Friday is different to how it seemed to those at the first Good Friday. We know what is coming; they did not.
One of the most remarkable images of Notre Dame in the smoky gloom is that of the cross at the East end shining through, shining out this message of hope and presence. That cross is a symbol of stability and hope while all around it is in turmoil. The cross, in its life through death, in its hope in the darkness and calamity, is a reminder that God has this and whatever ashes come, new life, new hope, new possibilities will come.
Good Friday holds our sorrow and real grief. Some will feel that particularly acutely at the moment, not least those connected with those killed on our roads in recent days. And grief has to be held, not covered up or brushed aside as we rush to Easter. We mourn because things, people matter to us and we have to adjust to their loss. Good Friday holds the loss and pain. But Good Friday is held by the life-giving, life-restoring power of Easter: we can’t celebrate it without that, indeed wouldn’t call it Good Friday without it.
For all who mourn and grieve, may this be a journey from death to new life, in the hope and love of God in Jesus Christ. May that cross, shining in the gloom and destruction, shine for us a new.
Sermon for Good Friday, Peterborough Parish Church, 19th April 2019