When I first saw the live footage of Notre Dame engulfed in flames, I immediately knew this was no mere human accident. During the holiest of weeks, here was one of the most famous churches in the world (if not the most famous) being destroyed in a fiery, hellish blaze. It had the air of evil about it; it looked apocalyptic, even: fire slowly demolishing a space that invoked and housed countless moments of individuals’ reverence for beauty, God… how could the evil one not be involved, even delighted, as the world watched in horror? The spire, once pointing to the heavens, collapsed and crumbled under the embers’ relentless attack, to gasps and groans from onlookers. The cruelty of time was felt more and more as the seconds passed into a new era without its contour in the Paris skyline.
Notre Dame also housed priceless relics of the Passion, including the Crown of Thorns, a piece of the true Cross, and a nail that had pierced the hands or feet of Our Lord. To me, these facts made it a target for the evil one to incinerate these powerful physical reminders of his defeat. The devil knows his own time is ticking away.
But as I watched through my horror, a greater truth dawned upon me. The purpose of stunning, grandiose, awe-inspiring churches like Notre Dame is to give our souls a little taste of encountering Heaven. Cathedrals like Notre Dame draw our hearts away from the earth and towards our beautiful home in Heaven. Something about this symbol being destroyed drew my heart towards this greater truth: the reality of our eternal God supersedes this finite symbol, even if the symbol invokes a powerful, soul-engulfing current of beauty when we gaze upon it, and even if the symbol has existed for 800 years, generations upon generations.
Notre Dame – and other old, beautiful churches and monuments – invokes this sense of awe and grandeur, but it also comfort, because it feels like it has always been there. And it has, in our lifetimes and of those we knew in the few generations before us. When we see something seemingly “timeless” burn to ashes, this gut instinct is turned on its head and we are reminded that finite humans were still the designers of this finite structure.
And in the midst of all this reflection about this historical tragedy at the beginning of Holy Week… it feels like we are back at Ash Wednesday. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Now we see that the words that were spoken apply to not only us, but also our churches that seem to transcend space and time.
But as I’m typing this… other truths are dawning upon me.
Think of the love in the eyes of the people watching, praying for Notre Dame to be spared of total destruction… try to quantify and appreciate the sum of the awe it spread into the hearts of humanity over hundreds of years… and that doesn’t even hold a candle to the awe and love our Creator has for each one of us, who He submitted to death to save.
Think of the efforts, the hundreds of millions of dollars donated already to rebuild this massive cathedral… and that doesn’t even compare to the sacrifice of Jesus to rebuild each one of our hearts, irreplaceable cathedrals crafted to house His own life and breath.
As we approach the holiest liturgies of our faith, let us step back and examine our lives during this past Lent… what fires and pains in our lives has the Lord allowed? Do we see the greater glory in them? Maybe we are still in our burning houses, wondering if He will relent, wondering why He is allowing such seeming destruction in our lives. We are trying to put the flames out, but they keep spreading. My dear friends, sometimes the answer is as simple as this: the Lord wants your company during His Passion and death. He wants you to be in the fire with Him. He wants us to believe that He longs to take refuge in and rebuild our hearts, our own cathedrals, that will be far more beautiful than anything we see here on earth.