Monday Paris, accompanied by the world, watched as the Cathedral of Notre Dame burned. In those hours so much seemed to be swallowed by flames, not just a phenomenal piece of gothic architecture, but also a tangible promise of hope, continuity and resilience. News image after news image showed the faces of people looking lost, bewildered and devastated … and it struck me that once again the Cathedral was serving the purpose for which it was built. It was helping people experience the many layers of the salvation story and the paschal mystery.
First, there was admiration without commitment. Like the crowds that cheered for Jesus on Palm Sunday, Parisians and tourists alike admired the Cathedral touted its magnificence and then continued on with everyday life. Then the ordinary was interrupted. Unstoppable flames swept over the cathedral, the spire fell, and something we assumed would always be there, was no more. As I watched the news, the truth of Good Friday resonated within the core of my being. Like Peter and the other disciples, I felt the sense of powerlessness and hopelessness as destructive forces rampaged and there was no way to stop them on time. Like Mary and the other women at the foot of the cross, I felt the searing emptiness of knowing that the world would never again be “the same.” Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus I pondered the question “why?” as I remembered walking through the Cathedral of Notre Dame many years ago with a friend who was not a believer. He asked why people lit candles, and when I answered that the flames represented ongoing prayers, he asked if he could light one. Why did this happen to a place that could draw so many to God?
But the Notre Dame story does not end with the collapse of the spire; nor does it end with the extinguishing of the flames. Pictures of the Cathedral on Tuesday showed a golden cross above the altar, shining brightly and pointing to the Easter truth that what began as an image of destruction God can use as a promise of hope. People from around the world are making commitments to help rebuild the Cathedral; and with those commitments comes a renewed, or sometimes a new, recognition of the enduring power and importance of faith, hope and love. People are looking at the Cathedral of Notre Dame and they experiencing a sense of the Holy. They may or may not know the name of God, but in the burning and the survival of the Cathedral they are experiencing a sense of hope and purpose that is greater than our political squabbles or our philosophical arguments. The Easter story is in some ways much too overwhelming for us to grasp and so we can be tempted to reduce it to a drama that we “perform” once a year. But the burning of one of the world’s most iconic Cathedrals, the image of a golden cross shining amidst the devastation and the outpouring of support and commitment to rebuild this Church have a visceral power that allows us to touch the deep mysteries of death and resurrection. One of the great gifts of Catholicism is a “sacramental worldview,” an understanding that God works through tangible signs and symbols to help us understand the intangible. This week the Cathedral of Notre Dame has been a sign that points to the truth of Easter: death and destruction will not have the final word.