Today Id like to start with sharing an experience with you from our trip to Europe. One of the sights on our priority list for our short visit to Paris was the Notre Dame. Freke had read about its famous rose windows and I treasured lovely memories of it from a visit many years ago I wanted to revisit. It was on the Thursday, close to six oclock when we, after a hot day in traffic and touristy crowds wherever we went got to the Cathedral square. There again hundreds of tourists were milling around. Worried that the Church might close at six we hurried to get inside because we knew it would be our last chance to see the Church from the inside, as we were going to Versailles the next day and home the day after.
Inside again there were hundreds of people. As we wound our way forward we tried not to loose each other in the crowd, which was a real challenge. Suddenly we heard a beautiful voice sing. At first we thought it was a recording: back ground music someone had by accident turned up too loud. But when we moved forward a bit more to where we could see we realised there was a service going on and that this was the voice of one of the women of the choir: beautiful, clear and moving.
What followed was most extraordinary. As we realised that in the middle of the milling din of tourists a part of the Church had been roped off for a service where people were actually actively taking part in worship, we saw two priests and a couple of deacons preparing the altar for communion. All the while some or probably most tourists kept doing their touristy thing: taking photos and walking around the Church. It was quite amazing. We stopped and watched and felt ourselves drawn in by the reverent gestures of the priests, the beautiful voice of the singer and the congregation which seemed to be stubbornly going about its business of worshipping no matter what. On the opposite site from where we were I saw a muslim girl watching the proceedings intently and a group of Asians who I imagine were no Christians either doing the same.
This was public worship in a way I had never seen or experienced before. Usually when I have visited Churches like the Notre Dame before tourists and worshippers would be separated during services: the tourists held back, the worshippers protected from curious stares and photographs forbidden. Here, the worship had to compete with the outsiders, it seemed, against a Church awash with noise, flashlights, and people coming and going.
I left the Church confused, and not knowing what to think of what I witnessed. Was it appropriate to conduct worship in such an unholy chaos? And especially to hold communion, celebrate the Eucharist, the table community where we believe Christ himself to be present in bread and wine?
Surely they could have shut the Church doors for a little while? At the same time I guiltily realised how disappointed me and Freke would have been when we had not been able to go in to be awed by its beauty?
I really wrestled with it. Until I realised me and my friend and our daughters had been fed in that Church, nourished by the bread of life, even where we had been separated from the true worshipping community by ropes. The beautiful singing, the very reverent and high Church gestures of the priests, the stubborn tenacity of the congregation, it had touched us all deeply and sent us home with a positive memory we would not quickly forget.
To me, in the last two weeks it has become an image of the Church in the world. Of the Spirit at work. Of how we are called to witness, stubbornly doing what we are called to do in a world we cant expect to be interested, but who might be fed nevertheless by our breaking of the bread of life, our witness to life in Christ.
We found the body of Christ alive in that beautiful cathedral, amongst fellow Christians who, like us, have chosen to be part of that body and let their lives be shaped by it.
It was simply through their persistent presence that they witnessed to a truth beyond themselves, to food more nourishing than the stuff the stalls were selling outside in the square, to a life filled by something else than the empty hunger of the world around. Amen.