How many deep emotions have come to the fore because of the devastating fire on the Notre-Dame roof? It is among the most celebrated buildings in the world. Victor Hugo wrote a long novel in which the cathedral is the subject, the hero, the story, and the harbor of such strange figures as Pierre Gringoire, Quasimodo, Clopin Trouillefou and Esmeralda. At one level, the edifice is a testimony to the creative capabilities of mankind. As Hugo puts it: “The man, the artist, the individual, is effaced in these great masses, which lack the name of their author; human intelligence is there summed up and totalized.” The anonymity is refreshing. But is that all?
The walls have never been silent. The cathedral was the birthplace of the Organum style of music, a direct ancestor of polyphony. Centuries later, the incomparable organist Louis Vierne died at the consul of the grand Cavaillé-Coll instrument, before a congregation of 300. There has also been celebration in the visual arts. Matisse painted the haunting “Notre-Dame, Une Fin d’Après-Midi.”
Is there a link to eternity in these stones? Abbot Suger, the pioneer of the Gothic style, wanted the rose windows and the geometric proportions of the floors to connect worshipers with the presence of God. Protestants might balk at this statement of Roman Catholic mysticism, and its overt Marian theology, but it is well to remember the cathedral was completed in 1260 after some 200 years of collective labors. This is well before the Reformation.
At the opposite end, many historians see in the fire a metaphor for the decline of the Christian faith in France. In the absence of the cohesion once brought by the Christian religion, the question being asked in Paris these days is whether the burning of one of the world’s great monuments can help bring unity to a deeply divided country. While many modern French people are content to be secular, or laic, as this unique term has it, it does not take much of a threat to call forth the deep-seated Roman Catholicism of their heritage. Deep but likely ineffective. Real Unity? True cohesion? Not likely.
Whether believers or not, many French people consider the cathedral should be rebuilt. So far, so good. It is a place where kings have been crowned and heads of state gathered to remember events and persons significant in French history. Already billions of Euros have been raised to that effect. In a rare moment of church – state cooperation president Emmanuel Macron and archbishop Michel Aupetit have agreed to restore this architectural wonder of the world. Predictably, some have objected that such a groundswell should be directed to alleviate poverty, not restore monuments.
So many themes are woven together here: French pride; tourism; Christian faith; traditionalism; church-state relations (since 1905 Notre Dame belongs to the government); and deep questions of French identity. We are hoping this devastating incident will raise questions not so much about French identity but about human identity. Buildings, particularly magnificent buildings such as Notre-Dame, have their place. But the most profound edifice in the universe is the household of God, “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (Ephesians 2:20-21).
This is the heart of our Seminary’s message. This is the only basis for a permanent unity in France or anywhere. Please pray that Aix-en-Provence could become the center for a great revival, and that through it the people of France could enter “a building from God, a house not made with human hands, eternal in the heaven” (2 Corinthians 5:1).
Very Truly Yours