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