Father James Martin: Where was God when Notre Dame was in flames?

Firefighters tackle the blaze as flames and smoke rise from Notre Dame cathedral as it burns in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

Yesterday’s heartbreaking fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris seemed to bring the world together in stunned grief. And coming at the beginning of Holy Week, when Christians worldwide mark the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the symbolism was almost too much to bear. I confess that I wept when I watched this ancient church be consumed by fire.

As the smoke poured from the medieval stone cathedral, flames leapt from the wooden roof and, in perhaps the most terrible moment, the ornate metal spire collapsed like a cinder, it was hard for many of us not to think of the suffering and death of Jesus. During his public crucifixion, just as yesterday, crowds of people looked on in horror—feeling powerless, overcome with grief and wondering what they could possibly do.

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Among those people was Jesus’ mother, Our Lady: Notre Dame. Our Lady knows exactly what it is like to stand by and see someone you love suffer and die.

But Our Lady also knew that, somehow, God was with her in that time of grief. But we could well ask: Where was God yesterday in Paris?

The answer is: everywhere. God was there among the crowds kneeling, praying and singing the “Ave Maria” and the “Lourdes Hymn.” With each of those prayers and hymns, they were calling on Our Lady’s help, in front of her building. This was an expression of their deep faith, and so God was there.

God was there among the firefighters who selflessly rushed into a burning building that represents the spiritual heart of France. There is a parable right there. How much does God love us? As much as a firefighter who runs into a building on fire to save it.

Our Lady knows exactly what it is like to stand by and see someone you love suffer and die.

And God was with the fire chaplain who risked his own life to save one of the most precious relics in the cathedral, what is believed to be the Crown of Thorns. It was a vivid reminder that the story of that building, the story of Our Lady, is intimately bound up with the passion and death of Our Lord.

Late last night, after the fire had been extinguished, we were left with a dramatic image: the cross, high above the altar, gleaming in the smoldering interior of the cathedral, a powerful symbol of Christian hope.

Hope is the final message. And no one knows this better than Notre Dame. She knows that suffering is not the last word.

Because the story of Holy Week is not simply one of death and destruction. It is, more important, one of hope and of new life. Good Friday makes no sense without Easter Sunday. Our Lady knows that hope is stronger than despair, love is stronger than hatred and life is stronger than death. And that nothing is impossible with God. Christians are a people who know sadness and yet who live in hope.

As you look on these images and as Notre Dame rebuilds in the coming days, months and years, let us ask for the prayers of Our Lady, Notre Dame, the one who understood what it meant to witness suffering but who also understands what it means to hope in the promise of new life.

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A Fielder
3 months ago

During the first 2019 episode of SNL, Keenan Thompson's character, in a skit poking fun at generational differences, suggested that Xer's, unlike their younger or older counterparts today, are those who are most likely to be spectators watching the destruction of a fire, remiss to take any action to limit or contain the damage. Perhaps his comment (which I found to be hilarious due to its veracity) points to a certain skepticism that no amount of continued energy can save a relic that is really destined for decay and death. Sadly, my first impression of this fire in France is not of Jesus' agony or passion. Neither do I weep, although I am afraid. Am I really the only person to think that this destruction is but one visible manifestation of what has been happening to our Church since before I was born. Yet some think first of Jesus' death and not our Church's painful diminishment. And before you judge me to be irrevocably pessimistic, just another disillusioned Xer standing on the sidelines watching the mother burn, consider instead that letting the old die, letting it, watching it burn to the ground, is actually a testament to a profound faith that God can rebuild the Church even from the ashes, into something far greater than we can imagine today. How I long to celebrate the paschal mystery.

Brien Doyle
3 months ago

Ranting on about this women, who (if she even existed) only represents the cruelty of these gods who abuse women....

Brien Doyle
3 months ago

Ranting on about this women, who (if she even existed) only represents the cruelty of these gods who abuse women....

Brien Doyle
3 months ago

Ranting on about this women, who (if she even existed) only represents the cruelty of these gods who abuse women....

Brien Doyle
3 months ago

Ranting on about this women, who (if she even existed) only represents the cruelty of these gods who abuse women....

Brien Doyle
3 months ago

Ranting on about this women, who (if she even existed) only represents the cruelty of these gods who abuse women....

Letitia Roddy
3 months ago

Jesus was right there with the firefighters, holding the hose that sprayed down the flames, holding up the overhead beams that did not fall and kill anyone, and passing those precious relics hand over hand to be saved for all of us. Miracles everywhere

J Jones
3 months ago

Beautiful piece

Roland Greystoke
3 months ago

He was watching what we do with our free will. He'll have a talk with us when we're done here.

Mark M
2 months 4 weeks ago

Especially the likes of this author.

Tim Donovan
3 months ago

I imagine that some people, including Catholics, believe that it's wasteful to spend millions of dollars to rebuild Notre Dame, regardless of it's beauty and historical significance. After all, couldn't the money which is to be spent on rebuilding Notre Dame be better spent on providing assistance to poor people, or some other worthwhile cause? I must admit, as a Catholic who each monty contributes a modest sum to various Catholic and secular charities, that this argument has some merit. However, I recall an incident which according to legend (perhaps history) involved St. John Neumann, who was the bishop of Philadelphia from 1852-1860. Bishop Neumann began work on the building of the Cathedral Basilica,of Saints Peter and Paul. He was supposedly asked by a Protestant if the money spent on the cathedral couldn't be better spent on the material needs,of people? St. Neumann is said to have responded that constructing the Cathedral was useful insofar as the men who were employed building the Cathedral were earning money that they would use to support themselves and their families. I believe that building beautiful churches has a twofold purpose, that expresses love for both God and neighbor. The construction of churches gives us a place to join together as a,community to give God the worship He deserves. Also, such construction employs people who earn their livlihood. In my view, it's a win-win.

Catherine Rogers
3 months ago

There's also the example given in Matthew 26:6-13. Not every extravagance is wasteful.

Kristopher Hauck
2 months 4 weeks ago

I can see the benefit to jobs for families, if you are skilled, male, most likely white, non-refuge/immigrant, and non-disabled.

Catherine Rogers
3 months ago

I read recently that attention to the Notre Dame fire has called attention also to the historically black churches burned by an arsonist in Louisiana last month, so that donations to their crowdfunding campaign soared. Over $1.2 million has been raised to help rebuild these churches. I thought, how very like Our Lady, to use her cathedral's disaster to inspire help for these struggling communities. You ask where God was? Bringing life out of death, as usual.

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