I am still moved by the sight of Notre Dame de Paris engulfed in flames during the most sacred week of the Christian year. The intense array of images and signs are too great to chalk up to mere accident.
Yet it is a strange fact that many commentators argued about who had the best and worst “takes” on the significance of the Cathedral fire. Two Jewish writers quarrelled over whether we could value the “beauty and profundity” of the Notre Dame cathedral without also understanding the “philosophy and religious principles that built it.” Is it so controversial to suggest that our common grief for the loss of something so beautiful might be tied inextricably to its animating principles? Some Catholics mirrored the same dispute, surprisingly arguing whether any deeper theological significance could be ascribed to the fire at all. It was as if we had returned to the liturgy of Palm Sunday: “Then an argument broke out among them about which of them should be regarded the greatest.”
Most people were not so bothered. They could see the whole story in pictures. They watched a Passion Play in real time, told by journalists, and photographers, and firefighters, who each played their part and told the story the world over. The brutal beating, the burning Cross which was not consumed, and then the miraculous preservation of the relic of the crown of thorns, and the pietà intact, smoke billowing like incense around the altar of Our Lady of Paris, as if known only by wounds now.
Christ is the literal center of history, and the Paschal Triduum that Catholics are entering into tomorrow is the center of the liturgical year. The power of all those images of Notre Dame flows from the Passion of Christ. This is how all the signs are to be read now — the images point to Christ at the center of the world, and the center of history, until the end of time, uniting all of our suffering to Himself.
If we want to understand the significance of the Notre Dame cathedral fire, there is only one way: enter deeply into Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. This is where we shall find the source and summit of that restoration which is eternal.
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