By Joshua Heavin
Upon initially hearing there was a fire at Cathédrale Notre-Dame, I assumed that perhaps some light smoke damage would be incurred; such a titanic vessel must be unsinkable, and our sophisticated modern technology will undoubtedly prevent any serious damage.
The prospect did not even occur to me that a sanctuary almost a thousand years old would nearly burn down on a Monday afternoon. However, many of us watched helplessly, and in horror, as one of the world’s most famous and historic churches was engulfed in flames and its roof collapsed. Although the main structure and bell towers appear to have survived, few of us woke up prepared to tearfully endure the day we came very close to losing Notre Dame cathedral.
This fire, whose cause is not yet officially known but appears to have been an accident associated with renovations, has already prompted several moving reflections on the symbolic import of a vestige of Medieval Christendom burning down in the increasingly secular and Late Modern West. Ross Douthat in The New York Times interpreted this event in light of recent challenges faced by the Roman Catholic Church; Alissa Wilkinson at Vox wrote an elegant personal reflection on “Why We Wept When Notre Dame Burned”; Rachel Donadio in The Atlantic commented on the paradox of “…a secular republic, dedicated to the principle of laïcité, or the absence of religion in public life, that has as its national symbol a cathedral”; while Mere Orthodoxy’s own Jake Meador wrote on the role of the arts in the church’s renewal. Those of us who ache for the church to recover the sensibilities of theological aesthetics were tempted for a moment to feel that the world was actually ending as flames licked up a treasure whose construction began in 1163 and opened in 1345, its blazing three hundred foot high spire crashing onto the nave.
By contrast, Patricio del Real, an architecture historian at Harvard University, has ventured to suggest that “[t]he building was so overburdened with meaning that its burning feels like an act of liberation.” Alternatively, attention has been and arguably should be directed to a spate of recent attacks and vandalism on church buildings across France.
Nonetheless, caution is warranted here; such attention can easily be motivated less by serious reflection on the actual challenges of crime or immigration policy, and more by a thinly-veiled xenophobia, racism, anti-Muslim, or anti-refugee biases. For example, Youtube bizarrely posted information about the September 11th terrorist attacks underneath its livestream of the fire. Those quick to identify Notre Dame cathedral as “a magnificent monument to Western civilization” unleashed a firestorm of reaction and ongoing counter–reactions. Most perverse of all, various Neo-Nazi, ethno-nationalist, and white supremacist leaders on social media have spun this fire as a galvanizing event on the world historical-stage.
If this fire is something of a societal Rorschach test, those who confess the Nicene creed should nonetheless perceive in this cathedral infinitely more than a monument or artefact. Right alongside the articles of “I believe in God, the Father Almighty… in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God… and in the Holy Spirit,” we also “believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” Our crucified and risen Lord declared “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).
Based on that promise, Christians who have recited the Apostle’s creed through the ages have confessed that we believe in “the communion of saints.” We are united not merely across geographical locale with other Christians around the world today; we are also united across time with those in every age who are joined to Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Lord who is Head of his Body and Bride: the Church.
We are initiated into the church through baptism into the one name that we all share; we are baptized into “the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” regardless of our class, race, ethnicity, gender, and regardless of whether we meet in a historic cathedral, a college campus, a nursing home, at the ends of the earth, or underground in secret.
The first epistle of Peter declares: “As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 2:5–6).
Creedal belief in the church’s holiness is not to pretend the church isn’t made up of sinners or in serious need of reform, but is confessed in hope of a sure future because in Jesus’ resurrection we have already seen the firstfruits of our shared resurrection to come. The Head of the Church is risen, ascended, glorified, and returning soon.
It is such a promise, and such a hope, that enables Christians to confidently endure change across centuries, regimes, empires, peacetime, and the worst disasters imaginable. Our greatest accomplishments, art, and all that we love will return to dust with us. But Christ himself, as our hope for the abiding future of the church, allows us to evade the paralysis we might feel when grappling with our morality and the transience of all things; he also is our aid against the resigned exasperation of chasing the wind vainly, striving to achieve a significance that will outlive us.
And yet, arguably the true indictment of today’s shocking and heartbreaking images is the extent to which we are almost unable to even imagine or share the vision of those who built Notre Dame Cathedral. Notably, I’m not here merely drawing attention to whether or not we are funding building projects adequately. In 2017 The National Review painfully described the dismal state of Notre Dame cathedral and its funding challenges; similarly, as far back as 1831 Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre-Dame lamented:
The church of Notre-Dame of Paris is still, no doubt, a majestic and sublime edifice. But, beautiful as it has been preserved in growing old, it is difficult not to sigh, not to wax indignant, before the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have both caused the venerable monument to suffer, without respect for Charlemagne, who laid its first stone, or for Philip Augustus, who laid the last. One the face this aged queen of our cathedrals, by the side of a wrinkle, one always finds a scar. Tempus edax, homo edacior; which I should be glad to translate thus: time is blind, man is stupid. If we had leisure to examine with the reader, one by one, the diverse traces of destruction imprinted upon the old church, time’s share would be the least, the share of men the most, especially the men of art, since there have been individuals who assumed the title of architects during the last two centuries…. Great edifices, like great mountains, are the work of centuries.
At best, the extravagant expenses of constructing and maintaining a cathedral in a world of poverty and famine is complicated. At worst, that the accidental fire in Paris elicited worldwide grief, while the intentional arson of three black churches in Louisiana by a white supremacist attracted much less notice and solidarity, is cause for appraisal of our moral compass. Our black brothers and sisters in Louisiana need our financial support in their work of rebuilding; if persecution of the church is persecution of the Lord Jesus himself (Acts 9:4), we who are united with Christ are obligated to care for and identify with them as an attack on our own selves.
But my concern, in our nation not yet two hundred and fifty years old, is that many of us are scarcely capable of envisaging the construction of a church building over the same stretch of time. In our throw-away culture of strip malls, sheet metal buildings, concert arena megachurches, and disposable everything, we almost lack the plausibility structures or sacramental vision for sacred time and sacred space presupposed by such a cathedral; it has not merely existed, but stunned the world with its beauty – humbling the proud, uplifting the downcast, and directing human affections to God – for nearly a millennium.
Notre Dame Cathedral has outlived the recovery of Aristotle, the founding of universities, the Black Death, the Western Schism, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the coronation of Napoleon, two World Wars, Nazi occupation, and contemporary France’s tense unrest. Notre Dame cathedral will likely be rebuilt, and will undoubtedly be beautiful; during World War II Reims cathedral was almost completely destroyed, yet has been re-made into one of the more beautiful church buildings in the world.
In addition to grief for lost art and history – and against the idolatries of white or western civilization – this fire arguably warrants grief and introspection as to whether or not our churches today are capable of imagining the ecclesiology of the cathedral’s builders. We may find ourselves so complicit in the tyranny of the present or an ethos of opportunistic religion that we’ve never considered how to act today in the interests of the church in the year of our Lord 2875.
To our digital age of instant gratification and constant amusement, few things pierce us with the transcendent and eternal more than something not merely ornate or sentimental, but which has long preceded us and will far outlast us, eliciting awe – almost terror – at the sublime.
I predict that images of flames engulfing Notre Dame cathedral will be variously used in years to come as a symbol of the Western church’s rapid decline, or perhaps set alongside commentary on the viability or impossibility of living out the faith of a distant age amidst the challenges of modernity. However, the church should all the more stand against narrations of reality in the mythical grammar of the so-called “Enlightenment” delivering us from “The Dark Ages.” Our secular friends probably recognize that the Enlightenment’s many benefits nonetheless came in a package-deal with colonialism and technologically-sophisticated ways to brutalize one another in nuclear warfare.
But beyond negative criticism, a Christian imagination will narrate the dividing line of history on God’s saving action of reconciling all things to himself through the crucifixion and resurrection of Israel’s Messiah from Nazareth. There is a singular redeemer who delivers us from “the present evil age” that is under the powers of Sin and Death, and as the once and coming Light of the world he recalibrates and relativizes all else by his accomplished but presently hidden “New Creation” (Gal. 1:4; 6:14–15).
He has joined us into the unfolding story of an exiled and sojourning people called to presently imitate his cruciform love preceding his future reign to come. We consequently are those who learn from the theological insights of our Medieval forebearers not merely out of an antiquarian nostalgia or a hipster-like chic for the obscure, but because they are our sisters and brothers who are united with us by faith (Heb. 12:22–24).
It is within the contours of that plotline that the church today can grieve the loss in Paris of an irreplaceable beauty and history that stretches back into the middle portion of the 12th century, a legacy perceptible to the world only as brick and mortar, but through the lens faith is infinitely more: a theological imagination for the communion of saints, a vision not only at odds with hostile or indifferent external forces, but quite often surrendered willingly from within.
Drying our tears, with belief in “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” I pray that the blaze at Notre Dame cathedral ignites a refining crucible of renewal. As many have sung before us and will sing after us:
The church’s one Foundation
Is Jesus Christ her Lord;
She is his new creation
By water and the Word:
From heav’n he came and sought her
To be his holy bride;
With his own blood he bought her,
And for her life he died.
Elect from ev’ry nation,
Yet one o’er all the earth,
Her charter of salvation
One Lord, one faith, one birth;
One holy Name she blesses,
Partakes one holy food.
And to one hope she presses,
With ev’ry grace endued.
Though with a scornful wonder
Men see her sore oppressed,
By schisms rent asunder,
By heresies distressed,
Yet saints their watch are keeping,
Their cry goes up, “How long?”
And soon the night of weeping
Shall be the morn of song.
The church shall never perish!
Her dear Lord to defend,
To guide, sustain and cherish
Is with her to the end;
Though there be those that hate her,
And false sons in her pale,
Against or foe or traitor
She ever shall prevail.
‘Mid toil and tribulation,
And tumult of her war,
She waits the consummation
Of peace for evermore;
Till with the vision glorious
Her longing eyes are blest,
And the great church victorious
Shall be the church at rest.
Yet she on earth hath union
With the God the Three in One,
And mystic sweet communion
With those whose rest is won:
O happy ones and holy!
Lord, give us grace that we,
Like them, the meek and lowly,
On high may dwell with thee.
Joshua Heavin is a Phd Candidate at Trinity College Bristol, University of Aberdeen, where he is writing a dissertation on the Apostle Paul and Participation in Christ.