Notre Dame Cathedral burned this week. Of all the great holy cathedrals and the humble worship spaces I have been in, I have never been in Notre Dame. Maybe it will be rebuilt in as little as five years and I will get my chance, but I just don’t know. I do know that the congregation who gather there every Sunday will not be celebrating Easter within its 850 year old walls and that is sad.
The fact that it burned during Holy Week just added to the melancholy I was already feeling in my own version of Lent in Omaha, Nebraska.
During the Lenten season many Christians practice a spiritual discipline of giving something up to mirror the forty days of Jesus’ fasting and praying in the desert. Tempted as he was by the devil, he kept to his discipline of fasting and praying and gave the devil his due. I didn’t choose to give up anything this Lent, but it was kind of foisted upon me by circumstance: no choir on Maundy Thursday.
My little church choir has diminished over time and no one seems to want to commit to a church choir with weekly practices anymore. With our tenor section (two great guys) out for personal reasons, we couldn’t field a choir for Maundy Thursday this week. We couldn’t sing this past Christmas Eve for the same reason: not enough vocal mass.
It is so sad to mourn the slow death of something so beloved.
That was not the only loss. The same night we learned we would not be singing on Maundy Thursday, I asked a question at the end of rehearsal:
“Are we going to sing the Hallelujah Chorus at the end of Easter services?”
It is one of the great traditions of our church. As a church consultant once told us, we shouldn’t violate the DNA, the code, of our church. Singing the Hallelujah Chorus by Handel at the end of Easter service would be one of those things that I would say defines the code of our church. Led by the choir, anyone in the congregation who wanted to come up to sing was invited. Even as our choir has diminished over my twenty years as an alto, the choir was always magnified by the multitude who came up. Generations of families would come together. Indeed, Jana and I used to join our dad back before we were choir members. The congregation becomes the choir and it was glorious!
“No. We are not doing that this year. We’re closing with Christ the Lord Is Risen Today. The choir is too small.”
It is a glorious piece to be in the midst of when it is sung. Contrary to popular belief it is not the closing chorus of Handel’s Messiah. That is an even better piece, Worthy Is the Lamb and the great Amen. I am blessed enough to sing them both every year with a large community chorus at Thanksgiving time. But this year in my own church, no.
I gave into my disappointment and went home that Wednesday night to search YouTube files for the Hallelujah Chorus. I was looking for a particular version that I was a part of in 2010 when I organized a flash mob to sing it at our local mall. 2,500 people turned out to sing on the Saturday before my birthday. My pastor/mentor/boss/friend George Moore recorded my favorite version. At the end he gives a “whoop!” and a “happy birthday, Julie!” I have listened to it every day this week, feeling the loss of George two years later, and now the loss of the tradition at my church.
But Maundy Thursday worship went on without the choir, and it was a lovely mournful service as it is every year. Hymns. Readings. The sorrowful rumble of organ and cello together. It sets the mood as we remember why it is we celebrate communion, why we break the bread and lift the cup. That same Jesus who spent forty days in the desert with the devil yapping at him, trying to trip up his holiness, said that when we eat this bread and drink this cup we should remember him and what he was about to go through for our sakes, even for mine.
The church had set up a something called Journey to the Cross. It was a Presbyterian version of the stations of the cross I had walked every Good Friday while I worshiped in the Roman Catholic Church. I thought of the congregation of Notre Dame Cathedral and that they could not walk those stations this year, or next year, or who knows when again. Their DNA had been clipped, their code altered, just like my church.
I didn’t take the journey of the cross at church this week, but I have contemplated and reflected on the stations of the cross that I walked last summer at St. Benedict Center in Schuyler, Nebraska, on a silent retreat with my sister Jana. The stations are beautiful bronze plaques set on a circular path in a cornfield. On one side is a picture in relief of each of the fourteen stations, and on the reverse is a prayer of remembrance.
I contemplated how many of them showed women who were walking that way with Jesus. He reached out to them, and they reached back. In his suffering, they offered care and love and their tears. He accepted it all, and he accepts mine as well.
So it is the end of holy week. We remember. We remember in the bread, in the cup. We remember in words and in music. We remember in steps of a painful journey. We remember those who have gone before us and shown us the way.
And tomorrow is Easter, and although there will be no public Hallelujah Chorus at my church, and no Easter worship in Notre Dame, we will remember and celebrate the one who walked the way of the cross, was dead and buried, and rose again.
Christ the Lord is risen today! Hallelujah! Amen.