Notre Dame Cathedral in Holy Week

Notre Dame Cathedral in Holy Week
CBC video, YouTube

There seemed to be so little that was worth saying aloud, as the news broke that a devastating fire raged in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

For Christians, the timing must speak, whether or not we agree on what it says.  This is the Monday of Holy Week, the day after Palm Sunday and part of the countdown to Good Friday and Easter, the day of commemorating Jesus’s resurrection.

After such a beginning, what else can Holy Week of 2019 have in store?

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In terms of prosaic details, we at least have an encouraging update that the fire has been contained, and the majestic twin belfries will survive.

Millions watched in horror Monday as video captured on-scene showed the cathedral spire splitting off its base and collapsing into the inferno below.  The roof – the wooden structure crowning the main central portion of the building – had collapsed earlier, its gigantic timbers plummeting into the flames.

But the first images from inside show that much of the sanctuary survived.  A report circulating on social media indicates that although one of the iconic rose windows fell from its casings, the rest are still there.

Other reports emerged earlier that priceless artifacts and relics from the cathedral had already been removed – before the restoration work that may have caused the fire began – or were evacuated on Monday in time to save them from the fire.

One image in particular is tugging at hearts and throats around the world.

A video-clip view of the altar as firefighters head in.

One need not even observe that Notre Dame is more than 850 years old (its construction began in 1163; it was consecrated in 1177 in a partially completed state, and officially completed on the original plan in 1260.  The well-known flying buttresses were added in the 14th century).  Everyone reading this has probably heard that already in the last 12 hours.

Readers may also know that the cathedral survived significant damage in the 1789 Revolution, and that it was furbished up by Napoleon I, underwent major reconstruction beginning in the 1840s under the restored monarchy, and had its spire rebuilt by Napoleon III after his declaration of a new empire following the 1848 Revolution (and a brief republican presidency).  The Notre Dame we living generations have known dates in large part to the 19th century.

But the original structure was contemporary with Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine, predating the Hundred Years’ War by nearly two centuries.  Notre Dame has had its share of mishaps since.  It has survived as a civilizational touchstone, a calendar in stone, wood, and metal of the story of Europe and the Christian West.  Its Gothic character evokes a spinoff legacy of Rome, but not Rome itself, and in that sense, it seems like a thread that began where our true, modern ancestral memories do.  Unlike the Forum and the Colosseum, Notre Dame cathedral has a life among us today; we use it for its original purpose even now, celebrating Mass, playing hymns on the great organs, singing and praying – and not just taking guided tours through roped paths with our smartphones out snapping photographs.

Or we did do that, until about 18 hours ago.  On social media on Monday, I saw comment after comment on the theme that this is either a warning to or a knell tolling for the West.  I’m not here to say it isn’t.  President Emanuel Macron vows to rebuild the cathedral, and all things being equal, there’s no reason that can’t be done.

And at least one French donor has already stepped up.

But it isn’t actually about architecture, art, or construction.  Nothing brings that home like the sympathy tweet from America’s favorite new congresswoman.

Of course, every part of the world today faces social and moral challenges from within that divide bone from sinew, soul from spirit.

Practically everyone has weighed in characteristically on the conflagration at Notre Dame.  And the upshot of the collective inadequacy is that we should probably all just forgive each other and not get our noses out of joint.

I was struck by three things that don’t seem accidental.  A nighttime crowd watching somberly as firefighters surged against the flames was singing to the tune of Smetana’s “Ma Vlast” (My Homeland), which is also the tune for the national anthem of Israel, “Hatikvah” (The Hope).

Perhaps someone did sing “La Marseillaise” somewhere today while keeping vigil near Notre Dame, but I haven’t seen video of it.  The Frenchness of Notre Dame de Paris long predates the era of the Revolution and “La Marseillaise,” and I don’t think many misunderstand the impact of that on what bereaved crowds choose to sing.

In the same vein, the second thing is that crowds were singing (mostly) “Ave Maria.”  Whether or not they were in a majority, there were plenty of Parisians whose first thought was to pray for the life of a great church.

The third thing is a simple one.

Of course.

A cathedral is just a building.  We know that.  Even precious artifacts and unique relics are just temporal things that will eventually subside into dust.  But those facts don’t mean that the timing of events that cut through us like a knife doesn’t have a meaning of its own.  If you believe we have meaning, as human Creation in our time and place, you see that this does.

What the meaning is, I don’t know that any of us is appointed to give a ruling on.  That is itself an informative point.  Without presuming to proclaim it to others, I will say that for me, in this most remarkable of times, both the agony of Notre Dame during Holy Week, and what looks to be saved out of it, are signals: to ponder not what the people of the earth are saying, but what God is.

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J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.


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