It survived the French Revolution. It survived the Nazis. And yet, here it is—burning for reasons not yet known. From five Masses a day in secular France, it is now uninhabitable. The most striking calamities carry a certain degree of irony: surviving so much brings destruction on some normal day, Tax Day for those who live in the United States, just another cycle of hours lined up in the middle of April (perhaps the most innocuous of months). It all seems so random, unexpected.
And yet, while no one among the faithful could hope for this, it is a powerful symbol. Of late, there has been much discussion of the horrific sex scandal afflicting the Church. Beyond the scandal, we have seen how it is that the powerful, melded together in cabals, protect each other. We know fairly few names at this point, at least among those who participated in or allowed such behavior, but one was a cardinal—former-Cardinal McCarick of the diocese I was born in, Newark, New Jersey. Pope Emeritus Benedict’s letter on the crisis was only recently released.
On top of all this, we have the confused politics of the Church, in which some seem to say that Donald Trump is the only acceptable American expression of the faith (in political form anyway). Many seem lukewarm in their faith, practically apostatizing, ignoring the poor, or virtue, or this or that. Our age’s commitment to faltering faith seems never ending.
And yet, to concentrate on all this during this season would be to miss the point. It is Great and Holy Monday during Great and Holy Week, the final week of Lent. It is a time of reflection on our own sin, a season of penance, of metanoia. Lent comes with fasting, almsgiving, the sacrificing of self. Why? Because our goal is to become like Christ, to see in ourselves how we reject Him, spit on Him, fail to do right by Him, fail to belief with the entirety of our hearts, minds, and souls. As the Orthodox Church in America’s website says about this season, and especially this today:
Pascha means passover, passage. The feast of Passover was for the Jews the annual commemoration of their whole history as salvation, and of salvation as passage from the slavery of Egypt into freedom, from exile into the promised land. It was also the anticipation of the ultimate passage—into the Kingdom of God. And Christ was the fulfillment of Pascha. He performed the ultimate passage: from death into life, from this “old world” into the new world into the new time of the Kingdom. And he opened the possibility of this passage to us. Living in “this world” we can already be “not of this world,” i.e. be free from slavery to death and sin, partakers of the “world to come.” But for this we must also perform our own passage, we must condemn the old Adam in us, we must put on Christ in the baptismal death and have our true life hidden in God with Christ, in the “world to come….” (OCA.org)
We are sinners. Notre Dame is the amazing accomplishment of a people who constantly turn themselves away from the Living God. We remain alive, remain in the hope of faith and love, by His grace. To see this horrific event, this unbelievable and truly sorrow-inducing fire, is a reminder to turn back to God, to love Him and our neighbor with every ounce of our being.
I hope that the cathedral stops burning soon. We ought to beseech God that the firefighters succeed in stopping the blaze; we ought to pray that the building remains standing, with as many relics as possible preserved, such that this tragedy might remind us of what we have, of the amazing accomplishments of a Christian faith devoted to the created goods of this divinely-loved world. At the same time, there is something deeply symbolic in this crisis, something worth meditating on as we cry out in sorrow:
Come, all who pass by the way,
pay attention and see:
Is there any pain like my pain,
which has been ruthlessly inflicted upon me,
With which the LORD has tormented me
on the day of his blazing wrath?
From on high he hurled fire down
into my very bones;
He spread out a net for my feet,
and turned me back.
He has left me desolate,
in misery all day long.