Notre Dame en flammes

Published on 25 May 2019
Notre Dame cathedral in flames

by Gordon Campbell

A few weeks ago, on the evening of 15 April 2019, the world witnessed a very horrific event in Paris: the destruction of one of our most famous cathedrals. Notre Dame was engulfed in flames. Many people, not just the religious or historians, were devastated by what they saw.

In my living room at home, on a shelf under the television, I have a model of that cathedral, bought when I visited Paris in 2006. Since seeing that fire on live television news, I have meditated on that building. The more I listened, in particular to the Parisians, to their grief and sadness to begin with; and then, the following evening, to their change of attitude, that the cathedral would be rebuilt, I was drawn to a parable from what I saw in front of me in that model and on my television screen. That parable spoke to me of what we were then about to celebrate as Catholics during Holy Week.

As I looked, the cathedral and its structure gave me a vision. Two towers and one spire. There I could see the Holy Trinity. One of the towers could represent God the Father, the other God the Holy Spirit. Both impregnable, made of solid stone and immoveable. What was left and pointing upwards to God was the spire, not so sturdy or so solid. For me, the spire represented Jesus, God the Son and God the Man, made not of stone but of wood and very vulnerable.

That majestic building was built on an island in the middle of the River Seine. Just like the Trinity, with its own time-scale of eternity, so also Notre Dame seems mysteriously away from the busy crowded streets and city pollution of Paris. The history, spirituality and Catholic liturgy of Notre Dame almost takes us out of this world and has always drawn humanity towards God and eternal life. Access to that cathedral is over a bridge. So also Jesus was sent by the Father to be a bridge for us to have access to the Trinity. Jesus who, in Holy Week, was rejected by the crowd and suffered death and destruction. Jesus was so vulnerable as a human being.

So it was that on that tragic Tuesday evening in April, a vulnerable part of the cathedral, that spire of wood, was razed to the ground, as flames slowly engulfed it and parts of the roof and rafters fell in ashes. Jesus was nailed to a piece of wood; it formed a cross and in that vulnerability he was brought down to the dust. I was struck in the days that followed, however, by that image in the media of the interior of the cathedral after the fires had been put out. The cross and the altar still stood in the sanctuary, giving a defiant Christian message that God’s reign will stand for ever. Even the destruction of the cross had no dominion. Jesus, though broken, still feeds those who hunger and thirst for eternal life.

Of course this is not the end of the parable: there is a brighter future! God restored Jesus to a new life through the Resurrection in three days. France will also restore Notre Dame Cathedral to its former glory with a restoration that will take some five years. As we continue to celebrate Eastertide, let us look ahead with hope to a resurrection of Notre Dame and pray that we can also witness to the Resurrection, that both might be to the glory and praise of God for ever.