In the light of Good Friday, the Holy Week burning of Notre Dame de Paris provides spiritual illumination for the broken – then gloriously resurrected – body of Christ, writes Convivium’s Father Raymond de Souza.
The fire at Notre Dame de Paris has been widely lamented as a cultural event of the highest order, but at the same time underplaying that that Notre Dame is principally a place of cult, of worship, a church. That point was made well by John Robson in the National Post, where I also commented. Our own Rachel DeBruyn commented here at Convivium.
Yet that point will not be missed by faithful Christians this Holy Week. On Good Friday, as many reflect upon the text of the passion in St. Matthew’s Gospel, they will hear the testimony against Jesus against the news of the near-destruction of Notre Dame: “At last two came forward and said, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to build it in three days.’” (Mt 26:60-61)
It is a reference to throwing out of the moneychangers from the temple. The account from St. John’s Gospel includes not only the provocative action, but an even more astonishing, scandalizing claim:
The Jews then said to him, “What sign have you to show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he spoke of the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken. (Jn 2:18-22)
The global reaction to the fire at Notre Dame gives us some sense of how astonishing that exchange in John 2 must have been to those present. The temple of Jerusalem meant more to the Jews than Notre Dame means to France. It would not be too much to say that the Chosen People were chosen precisely for the sake of a future temple, that a “house of prayer for all nations” (cf. Mk 11:17) would be built in which the one true God, the God of Abraham, would be worshiped in spirit and in truth (cf. Jn 4:23-24).
The calamity of the destruction of Solomon’s temple was accompanied by the exile and dispersal of the Jewish people, the apparent failure of the covenant, the loss of the promised land. The return to the land of Israel, the restoration of the promise, the renewal of the covenant, was not truly fulfilled until the temple was built anew.
So while Notre Dame holds a unique place in the history and identity of France, the temple of Jerusalem was so much more. It was for Jews not a symbol of God’s presence, but the singular, veritable Presence. So to speak of the destruction of the temple to a Jew was a much more grave thing – even a blasphemous thing – than to speak of the destruction of Notre Dame to a Parisian.
Imagine the global outcry if it turned out that the Notre Dame fire was set by the Archbishop of Paris, or one of the priests. It would be considered an act of historic treachery. Imagine if the same one who spoke of destroying Notre Dame claimed that he would rebuild it himself. It would seem an impossibly vainglorious project, to make over in one’s own image the very holy place belonging to God Himself.
Such a consideration this Good Friday would help Christians understand better what was at stake in Jesus, a faithful Jew, a son of David, speaking of Himself as the new “temple”. Indeed, it is only His resurrection from the dead, a fact beyond all expectations and experience, that can make sense of it.
The fire at Notre Dame reminded France that something dwelt there; the “heart” of France somehow, in all its historic cultural, spiritual and, yes, religious dimensions. Something did dwell at Notre Dame. It is why such buildings exist, to be a monumental dwelling place for something even more monumental still.
A building as grand at Notre Dame – and the temple of Jerusalem was grander still – gets our attention. What doesn’t get our attention as easily is those more ordinary places where God dwells; for example, that ragamuffin neighbour created in the image and likeness of God. Or that such a ragamuffin nature could be united to the divinity itself, the eternal Son of God. That execution on a Friday afternoon did not get as much attention as the destruction of the temple some forty years later.
On Good Friday what is in the balance is something – someone – much greater than Solomon’s temple or Solomon himself. Indeed, something much greater than Solomon is here (cf. Mt 12:42).
On that original Good Friday, it was not possible to fathom that in the crucifixion of Jesus was a destruction much greater than the possible destruction of the temple of which Jesus had spoken. This Good Friday, will we feel – at the moment that the death of Jesus on the cross is liturgically commemorated – that something greater than Notre Dame has been lost? Will the whole world mourn, as France has mourned for Notre Dame?
We cannot, of course, because we even as we mark the death, we know of the resurrection. But the partial destruction of Notre Dame, like the total destruction of the temple in 70 A.D., reminds us the most perfect dwelling place of God with man – Emmanuel – was once destroyed, not by fire, but by our sin. That is something to grieve over this Good Friday.
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Not being a regular runner, Father Raymond de Souza admits he does not know the perfect Planck’s Constant needed for someone in Paris to run five kilometres along the Seine in under 20 minutes. But the race, he says, is not to the swift. It is to the Cross.