Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Nôtre Dame

Last week, strangely enough, I wrote about how it is possible to go to a cathedral as beautiful as Nôtre Dame in Paris to drink in all the religious feel of the place but to miss God, to allow the frame to obscure the painting, as it were. Having written that just a few days ago, I couldn’t have imagined that within a week such a beautiful “frame” as Nôtre Dame would be destroyed by fire, a devastating fire that, while it could have been worse, wreaked havoc upon the finest and most famous example of Gothic architecture in France. 

It would merely be to repeat what everyone else has said already to say that this is more than simply France’s or Paris’ loss, it is the world’s loss.  Likewise, expressing my own or American solidarity with Parisians and all France in this time of sorrow is merely to repeat what others have said more eloquently. And even to say that the cathedral was much more than merely a religious building, is not enough. That structure was, and its remnant remains, the principal symbol of French culture, the center of Paris, the richness of a combination of religious inspiration, two hundred years of devoted labor in its building, loving care of the edifice, and sustained cultural preservation. What took so long to build, and what stood proudly for so many years ended so quickly at the beginning of the holiest of weeks on the Christian calendar.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, spoke about the care of New York Catholics for all Parisians, saying that they can “count on our love, prayers, support and solidarity.” He went on to make the connection between the destruction of the cathedral and the death of Christ: “This Holy Week teaches us that, like Jesus, death brings life. Today’s dying, we trust, will bring rising.”  It is striking that this occurred just now, just before Christians celebrate the death of Christ.[1]

Peniarth 482D manuscript. The Crucifixion. Christ dead on the Cross, with the Virgin Mary, John and the Three Maries mourning. circa 1503 -4. (Peniarth 482D is a manuscript written by one scribe, on parchment, probably in London, either in the late 15th century, or at the beginning of the 16th. As in the case of Peniarth MS 481D (The Battles of Alexander the Great), it is one of the most elaborately decorated medieval manuscripts in the Library, and a rare survival in its original binding. Its importance also lies in its connection to the Royal households of Henry VII and Henry VIII. )

Yes, celebrate is theologically the right word here. You see, Christians celebrate Jesus’ death because they know not simply that we can bring Him back, keeping His memory alive—I am glad to say that Nôtre Dame will be rebuilt, as millions of Euros have already been pledged for that purpose—but He was resurrected.  Christians celebrate his death for what it did for them: dying, He took the penalty for their sins away forever.  And then, to everyone’s astonishment, He rose from the dead, which was and remains the proof that He did by dying precisely what He had said that he would do.  And that’s why Christians celebrate his death, not just his resurrection.

Thus, while there are some similarities and, given the season, striking parallels between the burning of the finest French cathedral and the death of Jesus, as Father Dolan correctly points out, there is at least one fundamental difference: while we already know that Nôtre Dame will be rebuilt, the expectation of which in no way diminishes out grief over the tragic loss that has just occurred, the first-century disciples had no such anticipation about Jesus, even though he had repeatedly told them it would happen.  And, I guess, that’s why, in this time of great grief for Nôtre Dame, we can still find solace: not just in the hope of rebuilding, but in the hope of all of us sinful human beings being forgiven freely by quite another death, that of an innocent man a long time ago. And we can add to that the hope of our own resurrection based on that of that same man, the Son of Man, the son of Mary, the son of nôtre dame.

Vive la France, revivra Nôtre Dame. Le Christ était mort mais vit. Joyeuses Pâques!