By Dave Benson
The empty husk of European Christendom has finally gone up in flames. Have you heard? Tell it on every social media platform: Notre-Dame, the glamorous gothic ‘lady’ and icon of Parisian pomp and ceremony, has all but burned to the ground before bewildered spectators. How, then, should leaders in this Lenten season make sense of this ominous fall?
Some may celebrate. The spire collapsed under the weight of the institutional church’s sexual and fiscal sin, damning the world while exemplifying the evil it denounced. There’s warrant for such a reading, seeing this devastated cathedral as symbolic of a new era where hypocrisy is laid bare and true spirituality can rise from the ashes.
Not me. I broke into involuntary sobs while relaying the news to Nikki over breakfast. We reminisced back to Christmas Eve 2013, relishing the religious art and high point of medieval culture in the vaulted gothic ceiling and incomparable acoustics. While enjoying a concert of Gregorian chanting in the Basilica’s nave, we met our dear friend, Jean Louis, a kindly septuagenarian who struck up a conversation to practice his English and thank Aussies for helping liberate France from Nazi occupation way back when.
We remain friends to this day; so I lament with him, and the thousands of people gathered on the many bridges, singing hymns and trying to make sense of what this all means. For us, this space is sacred, and shall remain so, even if erased from the city skyline. And yet, its absence creates a vacuum into which myriad explanations rush.
In one sense, Notre-Dame has been burning for centuries. As celebrated Hungarian polymath and philosopher of science, Michael Polanyi, observed, the Enlightenment and its legacy was fuelled by burning up the treasures of the church—its theological buttresses, cultural artefacts, virtuous lives of saints and vision of the common good. We took these riches for granted, celebrating the mighty conflagration and illumination it brought, never asking when the timber would be exhausted.
And so we progressively secularised, embracing laïcité as the solution to modern maladies (Secularism in France), privatising religion and silencing revelation and the faith-full vision it brought. We reduced the church to a tourist trap which 13 million visitors gawk at each year on their continental jaunt, transfixed by the paintings yet blind to their transcendent referent. Ever since the French Revolution, these cathedrals have become the property of the State, with the church obediently leashed and walking in tow, muzzling any prophetic voice to preserve what prestige remained.
In an ironic twist, it was the government-sponsored scaffolding that caught fire. It was erected to polish the sculptures of apostles that adorn the artifice, propping up a church desperately in need of repair, all to present Paris’s best face to the public. What suitably impressive sepulchre remains to bury Napoleonic leaders and national celebrities? Where, now, will the masses go to lament on ‘Good Friday’? What point is there, when holy relics like the crown of thorns have combusted?
(Ichabod) Perhaps the glory of the Lord vacated the building ages back? Our regimented liturgies rolled on minus the animating Spirit, delaying recognition that the presence of the resurrected one had moved on with God’s mission to redeem all things.
What, then, is the significance of such events?
The nominalism and rampant secularism of much of Europe is no secret, spreading across the west even to the antipodes in Australia (A global call to engage nominal christians). Pretence has replaced much of what was once passionate belief, formerly making tangible the reign of God. ‘Revive Europe’ is the cry for such a time as this.
Perhaps the flux of faith has finally retreated to such a measure that it’s time to pre-empt the king’s tide? Maybe it’s appropriate to partner with the State in reconstructing this gothic icon, rebuilding better than before to accommodate an inflow of new believers (thisculturalmoment). We could be looking at the ‘Next Christendom’. Part of me hopes so.
And yet, I find a more poignant image in Jesus entering Jerusalem, dialoguing with his disciples about a structure no less impressive than the Notre-Dame Cathedral. There they stood, gobsmacked before Herod’s Temple, the icon of Judaism and heart of fused civic and cultic celebration. It wasn’t burning—at least not yet.
‘Do you see all these great buildings?’ replied Jesus. ‘Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down’ (Mark 13:2). Jesus then spoke of signsthat would accompany his second coming to judge the world. And yet, judgment always begins at home (1 Peter 4:17). In the pithy phraseology of Jordan Peterson’s Rule #6, we must set out own house in order before criticising the world.
Are we, the modern church, so different from the religious leaders of old? Can we see our compromise? Can we smell the smoke of our combustible legacy going up in flames before a watching world? That while we are right to celebrate the constructions of Christendom—its inspirational art and artefacts and ordered rule that has characterised the West—our hope was never in a building project.
Instead, Christ himself is our temple. And we, his humbled followers, are his body. Everywhere we step, following the Spirit’s leading, becomes sacred ground (Matthew 28:18-20), for the shalom—the holistic flourishing—of all citizens in this post-Christendom moment (Post Christendom Church Mission).
We desperately need new icons to light up our imaginations, carried by neoLeaders past the edifice and outside the institutional gates. Are we willing to bear the reproach with the crucified Christ as a sign of the construction to come on the other side of disgrace and death (Hebrews 13:11-14)?
This Easter, may the destruction of ‘Our Lady’—this majestic 850 year old Notre-Dame Cathedral—remind us that every structure we erect and every personality who builds will be tested by fire (1 Corinthians 3:10-15). I pray for more cathedrals in the future, inspired by faith, capable of housing the glory of the nations. And yet, my primary prayer is that the church may acknowledge its empty husk and make space for the Saviour to once again inhabit our nave.
May we embrace the downward path of death and wear the crown of thorns as a holy relic, before we aspire to be lifted up as a light to the world. As we lament the collapse of Christendom and the displaced stones of this physical structure, may we prayerfully return to the Quarry from which we were hewn (Isaiah 51:1).
With Our Lady’s Magnificat, let’s rejoice that the Creator of us all has ‘scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and has exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty’ (Luke 1:46-55).
Lead with humility and love, for when the time is right, God will rebuild a refined church that creates a lasting culture truly for his glory—a bonfire for all to see and celebrate, exceeding the beauty even of Paris’s jewel.