Well, at least they saved the crown of thorns.
By now everybody in the world knows that the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris burned on Monday. The footage of billowing smoke rising between the twin towers of the façade reminded me of 9/11. So I guess my first reaction is one of deepest gratitude: thank God nobody died. Thank God is wasn’t terrorism.
Instead, the fire presents a clean and precious opportunity to tell the story of Holy Week, a story that our burning, broken, crumbling world needs to hear. If only it were as easy to heal the world as it will be to rebuild Notre Dame.
Monday was a beautiful day in Paris. Paris in April has a special kind of beauty, something to do with the light, but also with the city itself and the way people behave in it. Paris can be a very happy place to be. There was a photo from Monday on the news of a young father swinging his little daughter in front of an intact Notre Dame. Something like 30,000 people visited the Cathedral that day, all sorts of people: tourists and catholics and muslims and Sikhs and non-believers and anybody lucky enough to be in Paris in April. The doors are open, it’s one of the most beautiful rooms in the world. Come on in.
Monday was the day after Palm Sunday, and it occurs to me that the original Palm Sunday must have been something like it: thousands of pilgrims in Jerusalem in a festive mood, their faith mixed with their patriotism, behaving joyfully in public as Jesus rides in on the back of an ass. The security forces aren’t anywhere to be seen. It’s a holiday. All is well.
But then suddenly on Monday things are not well. Suddenly the church is on fire, on fire at its most conspicuous place, its great wooden spire. Minutes after the doors had closed after the last departing visitor, the scaffolding over the crossing lit up and soon the clear Paris sky was full of blackening smoke. The ancient oak roof beams were soon in flames, and as the sun went down, the stained glass was lit by fire from the inside.
Who knows what caused the fire; we may never know for sure. But just as the beautiful day in Paris was doomed, so was Jesus doomed as the days went on. The plot against his life was closing in; Jesus’ fate was sealed when he raised Lazarus from the dead a few days before. The trap snapped shut in the Garden of Gethsemane on Thursday night, and the expectations of many, that Jesus would in fact become King of Israel and drive out the Romans – went up in smoke. The jealousy of the religious authorities won out: Jesus was condemned to die in the most conspicuous possible way. With the entire city watching, Jesus died on the cross, just as the whole world watched the flaming spire of Notre Dame fall.
And now what? The gospels and Paris and life iself tell the same story: it is time for a resurrection. In Paris time to rebuild the church, to renew devotion, to cherish human achievement and potential. Billions of money are pouring in for the restoration of a church that has been as abused and neglected over the centuries as any me-too movement survivor. Well and good. It’s a beautiful church that deserves to stand as long as human being exist.
But the real resurrection – the resurrection of Christ- is the resurrection that rises in your heart when you look at these so-called tragedies mirroring each other and recognize that life, Divine Life, lives now, whole and complete and powerful, whether the building stands or falls – whether this building stands or falls – whether the crown of thorns or the great organ or any of it survives. God lives, and God lives in you, no matter what cycle of the story you are living through. That’s the Spirit. That’s Life.
The secret to your life and mine, just like the secret about Notre Dame, is that no matter what happens, it’s no tragedy. On the other side of every trouble there’s an opportunity, and that opportunity is God’s opportunity because God lives. So we are perfectly safe no matter what happens to us. Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. Hallelujah.
Jesus knew that. How else could he have walked to the cross and stretched out his hands for the nails. We know it too. Knowing that is what makes us free.
Let us pray.