The Images on our TV screens early last Monday were painful to watch, as was the sea of disbelieving faces helplessly looking on. Millions of people all over the world witnessed the destruction by fire of the roof and the spire of Notre Dame Cathedral.
This 855 year-old Paris landmark, one of the most iconic buildings in the world, was greatly loved and admired for religious, historical, cultural, architectural and artistic reasons. It weathered the storms of conflict over the centuries including the Huguenot riots the French Revolution and the catastrophic devastation of WWII. President Macron spoke of the cathedral almost as a person when he described it as observing the ups and downs of Paris through the ages. “It has witnessed all our major moments, our epidemics, our wars, our liberations”, he said and added, “I am sad to see this part of all of us burn”.
Some of the onlookers were holding vigils, praying and singing hymns, kneeling and clutching rosary beads. For French Catholics and indeed Catholics worldwide our deepest sadness and pain will be because we have lost an inspirational place of great holiness where countless generations have prayed, worshipped and celebrated the Eucharist in good and bad times and have had their faith sustained and strengthened. How would they react now? What would be their response to this catastrophe?
The rector of Notre Dame captured the sombre mood of the people when he commented that he felt “A very great sadness” at the disappearance of “a place of great joy”. But there needed to be a defiant rally cry and it came from the president. “We are a people of builders”, he said, “and we will rebuild the Cathedral to make it even more beautiful”. Already the promise of large sums of money have been made to help towards the huge restoration programme envisaged over the next five years.
We can learn much from the reaction of Parisians and their resolve to rebuild. We can learn more from the response of many of Jesus’ followers to the betrayal and arrest at Gethsemane and the added trauma of the empty tomb.
As we know, panic and disarray ensued as Jesus, their charismatic, inspirational leader was violently taken from them. Inevitably there would have been a sense of powerlessness followed by a deep feeling of guilt and shame. Jesus’ men had failed to stand by him. They had to wrestle with their cowardice. Peter had the additional burden of his denial. In the Gospel reading for Easter Sunday where the initial emphasis seems to be more on the absence of Jesus rather than his Resurrection, Mary of Magdala believed the body of her beloved Jesus had been snatched away. This was a time of dreadful loss and sadness.
However, in all the desolation there were glimmers of hope. After the dislodged stone and empty tomb a number of joyous encounters with Jesus took place. One of them is the Road to Emmaus. On reading this you feel a rise in joy and expectation. Cleopas and the other disciple’s eyes were opened as Jesus broke bread and their hearts burned within them as he made the scriptures come alive. There must have been a palpable change from despair to delirium as the disciples one by one realised Jesus had risen from the dead. His prophetic words, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days”, had become a reality. They would recall how he had instructed them to stay in his love as he had done with the Father and that if they did this their joy would be complete (John 15:11).
The Church has always been going through a crisis of one kind or another and this present time is no exception. There has been much that has brought us shame and tested our faith but, each and every one of us can rebuild and make beautiful what has been damaged and distorted. Jesus, who said, “know that I am with you always”, encouraged his disciples to pick themselves up and pass the baton of the Good News onto others. We are not alone. Christ walks with us and we have the Holy Spirit who gives us the Truth that sets us free.
I recall the words of two hymns I regularly recite from my Breviary: ‘Alleluia, not as orphans are we left in sorrow now; Alleluia, he is near us, faith believes nor questions how.’ [S.S. Wesley] ‘Christ died for us inbitter shame, but now he lives in power and might; his fire unquenched, his vital flame, fills all the world with joy and light’. [Stanbrook Abbey Hymnal]
I wish you all a truly blessed and joyful Easter.