Why Notre Dame’s Fire Affects a Post-Christian Culture
The following article was co-authored for CityKerk Amsterdam by Daniel Chan, Ekkardt Sonntag, and Tim Vreugdenhil.
“It’s an enchanted land, this country of ours, deeply secularized, post-Christian, but which, suddenly, feels its heart contract at the sight of a church in flames.”
So reads a sentence from the French Catholic newspaper La Croix in the wake of the fire at Notre Dame.
France is indeed an enchanted land, as is Europe as a whole. The demise of Notre Dame deeply affected people far beyond one country, despite the fact that much of the continent is post-Christian. Almost every Dutch person, for example, has visited and marveled at the cathedral at least once, and many more throughout Europe acknowledge its history, culture, and artifacts as valuable.
But there is also a strong spiritual component to this event. Perhaps this is what makes this fire feel different from others to many people—even if the Eiffel Tower suffered a similar fate, the impact would not have been this deep. So what does it really mean to a post-Christian culture when a church goes up in flames?
To answer this question, it may be helpful to remember that flames have often altered the course of church history. The temple of Jerusalem, the home of God, was intentionally destroyed by fire twice. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon was the first to burn it to the ground in 586 BC. After the Israelites’ exile, rebuilding took place. But after the Roman general Titus destroyed it again in 70 AD, the temple never recovered. In present-day Jerusalem, you can still find the remains of one its walls, named “the wailing wall” to lament that which went up in smoke.
A few decades before the second destruction, Jesus entered the temple at Jerusalem, only to find it overrun with money changers and merchants. After he throws them out, they demand a sign of his authority to do so. Jesus answers, “Destroy this temple and I will rebuild it within three days.” His words were met with outrage and cynicism. Didn’t he know it took 46 years to rebuild it last time?
The main organist of Notre Dame referred to this Bible verse in a Facebook post, stating that it will probably take a little longer than three days to rebuild the cathedral. (Miraculously, his organ is still intact.)
On the same day, French President Macron addressed the nation: “I will rebuild this cathedral within five years.” Experts of historic monuments say that even five years is an impossibly short period. Rebuilding intricately crafted temples and cathedrals from such considerable damage is a long, extensive process.
So how could Jesus raise a temple so quickly? In the following verses, John tells us that the temple Jesus mentions refers to his own body—a foreshadowing of the crucifixion and resurrection he would later experience.
The greatest treasure of Notre Dame consists of three important relics from these events at Easter: the crown of thorns, a piece of the cross, and one of its nails. There are stories about these relics being rescued from the fire that resemble the famous novel by Victor Hugo. One of them goes like this: one of the members of the Paris fire brigade is a chaplain, a priest, and knew the way to the religious heart of the cathedral like no other. The chaplain, so the story goes, went into the burning church at the risk of his own life so that these artifacts were quickly brought to safety. Whether or not you have any feelings for relics, this story is beautiful. The heart of Notre Dame is the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. The church’s destruction, so close to the commemoration of such a beautiful event, left many heartbroken.
Not everyone sympathized, however. The question was raised: can a burnt-down church get too much attention? After the fire, there were plenty of satirical and cynical reactions. “Aleppo is also very sympathetic.” But that reaction does not do justice to a deep sense of loss that so many people (including many non-Christians) had last Monday—especially in the first few hours when it was still unclear whether the structure could be saved at all.
But why do non-Christians feel this way, as well? A church represents the connection between heaven and earth. Even in secular times, people are drawn to them in times of national or personal disaster. Through confident faith, reverence, and a sense of sanctuary, a church can provide an unrivaled spirit of comfort amid strife. Seeing a place that represents these values on fire is what led thousands in Paris—reputedly one of the most secular cities in the world—to raise their voices and sing the Ave Maria together: “Sainte Marie, mère de Dieu, priez pour nous…” The Dutch writer Bas Heijne, who observed the singing, remarked, “The dignity of their shared powerlessness and sorrow…I will never forget it.”
The story of Easter gives us hope in tragedies like these—a hope that Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for. “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” (Hebrews 2:14–15) That is, in short, the story of the bell-ringer of Calvary.
According to the gospel, Jesus died to rise as the “King” and “Light of the World” after three days. These words were chosen deliberately. They indicate that Easter has meaning for every people, every culture, and every country.
Easter shows that God’s heart is beating for every pain and every disaster, for every guilt and every suffering, for Paris and for Aleppo, for children with scraped knees and for victims of torture. The meaning of the resurrection story is that the bells are ringing—the bells that sound God’s kingdom and hope for the future—no matter what crisis we may be in.
Though fewer and fewer Europeans are familiar with the story of Jesus, the church will keep ringing the bells. The roof of Notre Dame is gone, the crown of thorns is somewhere else, but the two remaining towers point firmly to the heavens. Just as Jesus rose from the grave, Notre Dame will be rebuilt. And its bells will testify Jesus’s sacrifice and triumph for Easters to come.