In April of 2019—exactly a year ago next week—flames shot through the roof of Paris’s Notre-Dame cathedral. Before long, the dread became the reality—there would be no Easter at Notre-Dame.
We could hardly have imagined there would be no Easter anywhere in Europe a year later.
The cathedral I serve, the American Cathedral in Paris, has been closed for three weeks now. It will likely be closed until the end of the month. But when we were forced to shut the gates by order of the government, we were hardly alone. This is the Easter of empty churches.
All churches, not just our churches, have been closed throughout Western Europe—the place where Christianity made its Faustian bargain, evolving from a small gathering of socially marginal believers to a dominant civilizational force.
The late Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan wrote that, during the past 2,000 years, nothing had more forcefully brought forward the fundamental assumptions of each epoch in Western history than “the attempt to come to terms with the meaning of the figure of Jesus of Nazareth.” This, in a simple phrase, is the essence of Easter; on it hangs not hollow claims of privilege or longing for past grandeur, but the central idea of Christianity. But when the doors of the churches are barred, does any compulsion to make sense of Jesus’s story remain?
Today, for the first time since the first Easter, the meaning of the figure of Jesus of Nazareth is being observed, preached, and celebrated—but not in any of Europe’s countless churches. And for those of us who find it possible to remain people of faith, contemplating what this might portend is a matter of no small unease.
It is too early to predict what the impact of this shattering break with tradition will mean for the future of the Church—or for the idea of churches. It is not too early, however, to assert that the impact will be significant.
One way of constructing this future might be to see the Church going the way of the music and publishing industries—two other immensely influential values-mediating institutions brought low by shifts in social patterns of communication.
In these weeks of isolation and self-quarantine, faith communities have rushed to the screens to keep their people connected, doing the basic work of sharing concerns and joys in community that has been their purpose since Paul first planted churches along the edges of the ancient Mediterranean. But what musicians and writers learned about their industries’ Faustian bargain is that it trades the potential of impact for the loss of sustainability.
Digital natives expect their content—even their faith content—to come at no cost. And, brothers and sisters, that won’t keep the church doors open.
Another, more optimistic view of the Church’s future, popular among many of my colleagues, is that this moment of separation from both the companionship of the faith community and the place in which it gathers will reawaken in people a hunger for congregating and connecting. Once the doors are reopened, goes this line of thinking, it will be just like it was after our last great trauma—filled pews, expectant faces, hopeful hearts.
Maybe. My tradition teaches a simple idea expressed in the Latin aphorism Lex orandi, lex credendi—“Praying shapes believing.” Right now, people are praying at home, in their own surroundings, separated from community. And I believe that this may be the practice that shapes the belief of the post-COVID-19 era.
Through plagues and wars, even through upheaval and revolution, there has never been an Easter like this one. The day marks the single most radical claim of Christian belief—that there is more to life than physical existence, more to existence than ourselves. But on this disorienting Easter, the moral claim of loving our neighbors by slowing the spread of an eager and evil disease takes precedence over the imperative to gather and celebrate. Will we ever be the same on the other side of an Easter when the churches stood empty, wondering where we’d gone?
At least this much is true: At the very center of the meaning of this day is the story of another empty structure—an empty tomb. From that emptiness emerged a set of ideas of incalculable influence on human life, culture, and thought.
Who knows? Today’s empty churches may hold something similar in store.