‘We will rebuild more beautiful than before’. That was the promise given by President Macron to restore Notre Dame de Paris even as the fierce flames raged on Monday evening. Some saw this as a political move to use the disaster in Paris to prop up his flagging presidency. That is probably unduly cynical. He probably shared a deep emotional response with millions of French citizens - not least those who profess no faith. The cathedral is an icon of what it means to be French. It reaches beyond its status as a Catholic place of worship. It supplies some sense of identity at a time when that may be eroding. The Gothic cathedral is at the heart of French culture.
Even though I never much cared for the interior of Notre Dame (I thought it darkly oppressive) there is no question that the exterior and the setting make it worth its world heritage status. So what were my emotions as I watched the live TV coverage? Horror at seeing those rampaging flames against the background of a blackened sky – so different from the familiar postcard view. Unbelief as the distinctive spire toppled. An odd kind of joy as the crowd broke into the singing of hymns. Amazement at the courage of the firefighters who seemed to move into the very heart of the inferno. A sort of fear that a small part of my own inner landscape could so easily be destroyed.
I left the TV coverage to go to our parish church for an Easter reflection. The priest – who apparently has strong family ties with France – was clearly distressed by the macabre drama unfolding by the Seine. Ironic, he said, that in Holy Week, France should be facing its own moment of passion.
It has since struck me that what I felt as I watched the spectacle unfolding in Paris was not so very far from the reactions evoked in me by the events of Holy Week. Is this true? Can this really be happening? ‘I believe. Lord, help my unbelief’. Horror at the unspeakably terrible destruction of someone like Jesus. A wake-up call – a call to seriousness about who I am in response. Fear about the prospect of the whole Jesus project collapsing. Hope in the resolute determination that out of the ashes of death, a new living community of faith can grow. Reassurance that alongside the calculating multinationals offering huge numbers of euros, so many ordinary people seemed so ready to do their part in financing the rebuilding.
I was reassured again when the experts reminded us that all buildings are always work in progress. The collapsed spire was after all only a couple of hundred years old. But the restoration will give a new generation of architects and artisans of all kinds an opportunity to create afresh a space which will inspire awe. We are all works in progress. We all face destructive forces. Each of us bears crosses often unseen. It’s the focal point of Easter: faith in Jesus can flourish anew in an upside-down world.