Foreshadowing Easter: The Fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral

A reflection on the April 15, 2019, fire at Notre-Dame in Paris.

The scene of Notre-Dame Cathedral engulfed in flames looked like something out of a post-apocalyptic story. The fact that the disaster took place during Holy Week made it hard not to see it in symbolic terms. But, of course, our modern forms of surveillance make it possible to watch the whole situation unfold in real time, and soon the damage became all too real. The collapse of the steeple was an especially harrowing moment.

I grew up in Vienna, Austria—a nation that, like France, is largely secular, but one that also boasts a rich Catholic heritage. Like France, Austria is also filled with ancient churches, and these architectural marvels draw people from all around the globe. Though understandable, there’s a haunting aspect to these distinctly modern pilgrimages. Most of these people are tourists, not worshippers, and they’re here, phone-in-hand, to chronicle the strange relics—the baptismal fonts, the archaic scenes depicted in the stained glass, the altar—of a bygone era. For many, these churches are little more than museums.

For this reason, it was especially heartening to see a large crowd reciting prayers and singing hymns at the scene of the conflagration in France. How long has it been since such an unabashed act of public worship has taken place in those streets? As a former resident of Western Europe, this was one of the most moving moments of the whole ordeal thus far.

I’m certain that I’m not the only one who thought of Jesus’s words concerning the temple in Jerusalem as I watched this particular temple burn in Paris. In a scene that incensed the surrounding crowds and religious authorities of his day, Jesus “cleansed the temple,” driving out all the merchants and moneychangers with a hand-made whip of cords, overturning their tables and scattering their coins across the stone floor (John 2:13-17).

When these religious leaders demanded a sign for this rash display of authority, Jesus famously said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). This cryptic response was met with incredulity: “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” (John 2:20). What these literal-minded men didn’t realize was that Jesus was speaking about the “temple of his body,” and that his future resurrection would reveal the true majesty of his words for those who believe in him. In fact, the text makes clear that the disciples understood Jesus’s words only in retrospect: “When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken (verse 22).”

It’s a great relief to know that the damage to Notre-Dame wasn’t as extensive as we initially feared. From the swift response of the fire fighters to the city’s leaders and many concerned citizens, the salvage efforts have been nothing short of heroic. But the fact remains that a great and ancient treasure has been compromised, and seeing Notre-Dame in flames was a stark reminder of both its value and its impermanence.

I look on the charred sections of this great Cathedral and remember Christ’s wonderful, strange words: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Ours is a world of innumerable wonders; it is also a place of undeniable impermanence—a place where “moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19). In these sobering moments, may we look to Christ, whose death and resurrection show us that, though death and destruction are cause for lament, they will not have the last word. Our earthly temples will crumble, but the temple of Christ’s body endures.

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