Notre Dame & Christendom

on April 16, 2019

One of Christendom’s greatest and oldest sanctuaries has suffered great damage but largely survived. According to whom you read, its devastation is a metaphor for European Christianity’s collapse or for its rebirth through fire.

The mass horror over Notre Dame’s fire, and the immediate resolve for the cathedral’s full restoration, signify that France’s connection to Catholicism is not so remote as often imagined, True, it was a national political and cultural symbol. But it was chiefly an active church where the Eucharist is celebrated daily and whose architecture honors saints, Apostles and prophets. Neither France nor Europe nor the West can be understood politically or culturally apart from those saints, Apostles, and prophets.

For over two centuries France has avowed a strict separation between religion and state. Yet Notre Dame, named for mother of Jesus, still loomed over Paris, its bells commemorating the nation’s central events, such as the 1944 liberation and the 1918 armistice. In 2016 the cathedral hosted a funeral mass for Father Jacques Hamel, an elderly priest murdered by an Islamist, which four French presidents attended, and to which the Archbishop of Paris preached.

Nearly every notable French person with countless other Europeans of the last millennium has been a witness to Notre Dame. Thomas Aquinas saw its construction. Joan of Arc spied it from afar as she besieged Paris. John Calvin presumably worshipped there. So did Louis 14th, Cardinal Richelieu, Moliere, Descartes, Victor Hugo and Charles de Gaulle. Voltaire, Robespierre and Sartre scoffed at its faith but could not ignore its power. Napoleon crowned himself there. Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson beheld it. So too did even Hitler, who thought he had conquered it but was instead defeated by it.

A leftist Native American speaker popular in some USA Evangelical circles harrumphed that Notre Dame was an icon of European colonialism and intrinsically corrupt Christendom. All civilizations are corrupt in some way but he’s right to identify the cathedral as symbol of Christian civilization. Notre Dame is not just a church nor just an historical tourist destination nor just a symbol of French culture. It embodies the biblical aspiration to construct a comprehensive society aspiring to give glory to its Creator.

French revolutionaries and secularists have long touted the rights of man. But such rights and claims descend directly from the biblical story that Notre Dame emblemizes. The cathedral’s soaring architecture represents the sacred cosmology of creation, fall, redemption and eschatological completion. Humans are sacred only because of their central role in this divine narrative.

Many French and Europeans may no longer consciously identify with the faith of Notre Dame. But they are indelibly creatures of it and cannot escape it. Maybe the great fire marks their continued denial of this spiritual and historical reality. Or maybe the stunned reaction to it will generate a recovery of memory, gratitude and faith.

  1. Comment by Diane on April 16, 2019 at 5:14 pm

    Today, a particular American who could’ve easily turned his back on the devastation of a Roman Catholic historic house of worship, chose instead to deliver words of gratitude, deeply felt pain and empathy with the French people. That he spoke to them in French, their native language in which he, American born, is fluent, reminded me of the unifying flames of Pentecost – where each heard and understood.

    What a sign of God’s judgment to those Christians who’ve in recent days heaped scorn on Pete Buttigieg, this one whose eloquent heartfelt words were spoken in the language of the French people. He’s been attacked in recent days by right-wing religious fanatics for not being a “real Christian” (because he’s an Episcopalian and gay). Attacked by those whose biblical literalism identifies his homosexuality as immoral before God. Attacked by evangelicals for naming the pain and harm to lgbtq folk and others on the margins when discrimatory policies are passed under the guise of “religious freedom”. (Students and alumni of an Indiana evangelical university back him up, echoing Buttigieg’s sentiments; several thousand have signed a petition to keep VP Pence from delivering their commencement address next month).

    What grace this Christian man bestows! Ah, blessed are the persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven!

    God is still speaking…while Buttigieg is being acclaimed for his faith and dignified statesmanship in his empathetic response to the Notre Dame disatrous fire, evangelicals in their scorn for him are made to look more and more like disbelieving fools.

    Maybe – just maybe – evangelicals might take a few clues from Buttigieg and learn to model grace, acceptance, inclusion and love. Open your eyes – God’s sign of blessing on this Christian gay man is abundantly clear!

    God has used him to convey to the people of France – in their native tongue -the sacred, loving and compassionate heart that is God’s.

  2. Comment by William Riggs on April 17, 2019 at 7:13 am

    No fine words or grand works of art can make up for disobedience to God’s commands. Perhaps that is the lesson Notre Dame’s fiery loss has for us today.

  3. Comment by David on April 17, 2019 at 8:48 am

    Notre Dame is a metaphor for modern Christianity. Its foundations rest on a pagan Roman era temple. Much that differentiates Christianity from Judaism can be traced to paganism—the trinity, eating the god (communion), Christmas, gods having children with mortals, and the mystery cult doctrine of life after death for members only. The belief in an afterlife did not enter Judaism until perhaps 200 BCE. Even at the time of Jesus, it is recorded in the Gospels that this was rejected by the “priests and scribes” as they found no basis for it in scripture. As the Gentile converts poured in, Jewish customs such as circumcision and kosher food had to go.

  4. Comment by Donald on April 21, 2019 at 3:03 am

    Mark’s words of grace are in contrast with the strident hectoring of the three-respondents above. Thanks, Mark, for your gracious wisdom.

  5. Comment by Geary Rowell on April 21, 2019 at 6:54 am

    Mark does indeed seem to have a varied following!

  6. Comment by Lisa Aldrich on April 22, 2019 at 6:06 am

    Don’t believe it was accidental but do believe it was done by man. Don’t believe in creating chaos to make a point, no matter what the point is. Calmly stating that point is a much better way to point out the position you believe in. Neither Christians nor non-Christians will ever make their point heard by falsely creating a situation to inspire fear. And even God himself would not push faith in him by creating the illusion of truth that is actually falsely created. Those who do that were proved false in Moses Day and ultimately paid dearly for it by the hand of the true God.

  7. Comment by Susan Crews on April 23, 2019 at 7:15 am

    Well said! It is my prayer that many good things will come out of this terrible tragedy.

  8. Comment by Richard on April 24, 2019 at 10:27 am

    Notre Dame is a symbol of the faith in God by those individuals who designed and, over centuries, built it. The masons, carpenters, artists and artisans as well as all who freely contributed for it.

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