This image of the interior of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame after the fire is haunting. In the darkened sanctuary a cross stands, shining in the distance. The words of Viktor Frankl remind us “what is to give light must endure burning.”
Upon awakening from a night of fitful sleep I thought about Fluctuat nec mergitur. This Latin phrase translates more or less to “she is tossed by the waves, but does not sink.” Since at least 1358 it has been used as the motto by the city of Paris. Today the city of Paris, the City of Lights, or in French, La Ville-Lumière has been tossed indeed. The Cathedral of Notre-Dame rests in the remains of smoke and ashes after a devastating fire, but it has not sunk, nor has Paris itself. Yet when I woke up, I had to wonder if it had really happened.
Here we are on Tuesday of Holy Week, those of us who follow Christ, making our way towards Jerusalem. It means certain death, and death means on crucifixion. Crucifixion was the manner in which the Roman occupiers and overlords used to exert a particular kind of control. We own you. We will kill you. We will make you suffer along the way. We will shame you as we do it. We will torture you until your last breath, and that will take some excruciating time. The Romans did not invent crucifixion, apparently the Persians did that, but they did find ways to perfect this gruesome perversion.
When Jesus was put to death on a cross it was to make a point. Do not make trouble. Of course, Jesus was making a lot of trouble by upending the establishment. His outreach to those on the margins, his healing of the sick, and worse yet, his bringing Lazarus back to life brought daily shocks to life in first century Palestine. He was making God accessible to those often denied and it was a challenge to many.
The Cross was never intended to become a symbol of resurrection, life, or hope – but that is exactly what happened. Not that that same cross has not been used to cause harm to others, and we all know too much about that, but the power of the Cross lies in its paradoxical symbolism – that which brings a terrible death also brings new life.
The cross is a powerful thing to consider. In 1991 I was at mass on Corpus Christi Sunday at Corpus Christi Monastery. The priest was very elderly and infirm, he could barely walk. His voice choked by age, and perhaps medical conditions, was difficult to understand. As I strained to hear I heard him preach about taking up the cross and following Jesus. What he said was that the modern day equivalent was “take up your electric chair and follow me.” He asked us to imagine wearing jewelry that was made in the form of an electric chair.
Which brings us back to Holy Week, Notre-Dame, and the Cross. This week is a stark reminder that we are headed towards death. We are headed toward a painful, shocking, shameful, torturous death. Yes, new life is coming, but first – death.
Notre-Dame Cathedral has burned. Even if a significant amount of art and relics were removed because of renovation, much has been lost. A place that has withstood plagues, twists and turns of history, the French Revolution, two world wars and more is reduced. People, pilgrims, priests, and popes have come to pray and take in the grandeur which is now gone. The holy ground of a sacred space that has stood for over 800 years is transformed. This sacred space has burned before and was rebuilt. Out of the ashes something new will rise again. It will not be the same, but nothing ever is the same, is it? So much has been lost, but what will come in its place? But before we get there, we must sit and watch the smoldering remains, pondering and praying, seeing and accepting our own death and demise, always reminded that “what gives light must endure burning.”
The cry to rebuild and renew is immediate, but before we rush let us take a moment to sit in the ashes and sorrow of the darkened interior, the grand stained glass windows smudged black or burned out, the ceiling and roof incinerated. Where do we see our own lives in this? Have we traversed nearly the whole of Lent to have not let go of anything in order to be transformed? I don’t know about you, but this letting go off my own travails, is really hard. Do we really have to die?
On the altar of Notre-Dame the Cross remains. As do the words of Frankl for one more time… “what is to give light must endure burning.” Jesus has shown us time and again, we have to be willing to die in order to find new life, We must be willing to burn in order to be light. Are we ready?