History in the Shadow of Notre Dame

JB Shreve
April 16, 2019 8 mins to read
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Yesterday the world watched in silent horror as the Cathedral of Notre Dame burned in Paris.

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The destruction of powerful symbols on our international landscape is always mesmerizing to watch and worthy of consideration.

The fall of the World Trade Center Towers was a collapsing symbol of power that caused the world to reflect and consider.


The terrible earthquake in Haiti a few years later was encapsulated in the devastation done to that nation’s Presidential Palace better than any statistics or measurement of human loss could have achieved.


The collapsing and cracking of these national and cultural symbols invite us to pause and consider the implications unfolding before our eyes.


In Paris, a story was told in the burning of the symbol of Notre Dame. Notre Dame, the fires that burned, and even the mourning that has followed carry with them the frightful and hypocritical story of western civilization.


In the historical shadow of Notre Dame, a story of conflict unfolded. A contest has played out between values and ambitions, virtues and politics. It is a story where we have hidden evil behind the disguise of sacredness.


Today the world mourns the loss of a sacred space, but Notre Dame was never really sacred. People are sacred. Life is sacred. Most importantly, God is sacred. Buildings are what we build to celebrate the sacred and at other times to disguise our slide away from what is sacred.


Notre Dame was a massive, marvelous, monument but in the shadow of Notre Dame, the terrors of what human hands can do in the disguise of goodness and rightness have become our history.


The Bishop and the Crusades

The Cathedral of Notre Dame was built under the guidance of Bishop Maurice de Sully in the 12th century. During his tenure as Bishop of Paris, he developed the funding to see the cathedral built and almost entirely completed before his death in 1196.


Bishop Maurice de Sully


The massive structure was a singular achievement in this time period. Maurice de Sully drew the faithful to make their sacrifices of finance and labor to the construction. An inscription left by a master mason in later years reads, “Commenced this work for the Glory of the Mother of Christ.” The people believed and they made sacrifices for this massive cathedral. They were told it was for the work of God and they gave their lives to it.


Maurice de Sully was not notorious for corruption like many of his contemporaries within the Catholic Church during this period. He was, however, a partaker in the blind religious nationalism of his age. He converted local Parisian synagogues into churches to the glory of God – presumably persecuting the local Jewish population in the process.

Richard the Lionheart, a symbol of bravery but in reality a butcher

In 1190 he stood as treasurer for the Third Crusade. Under the Bishop’s blessing, Richard the Lionheart and other crusaders marched off to the holy lands and committed various atrocities. The most famous of these was the Massacre at Ayyadieh in which Richard the Lionheart and his crusaders butchered 2,500 prisoners, including women and children, to provoke the Muslim army.


It was also during this period of The Crusades when Europeans became especially addicted to chasing religious relics such as pieces of wood from the original cross of Christ, the holy grail, and even breast milk from the Virgin Mary. None of these artifacts were real. They were substituting tangible myths for their faith in the truly sacred.


In 1063 the Crown of Thorns which Jesus was forced to wear on the cross as the Roman soldiers crucified him was said to be found in Jerusalem. It was moved to Constantinople and by 1238 it arrived in Paris. The relic has been housed in the treasury at Notre Dame until yesterday. A priest is reported to have braved the flames yesterday to save the crown of thorns from destruction.

The Crown of Thorns represented a mockery by the Roman executioners to Jesus. It was a fitting symbol of their blindness and limited understanding. They did not understand the magnitude of what was taking shape on the cross and crafted a symbol to betray their personal blindness. To them no king would hang on a cross, no king would endure such suffering, and the crown of thrones was symbolic of the mockery and futility with which they perceived this king of the Jews.


How strange that for the next two thousand years the leaders of the world would continue to use symbols to demonstrate their ignorance and blindness to the truth of the gospel and the Kingdom of God. A mighty cathedral was built to give glory to God while its builder blessed murderers and despots and persecuted other men and women made in the image of God. Crusaders butchered cities and towns full of people across the holy lands to secure holy relics. They deemed the objects as sacred and the people as expendable.


This all took place in the shadow of Notre Dame.


The French Revolution


The upending of faith and rightness for a misguided pursuit of truth was housed once again in Notre Dame during the time of the French Revolution and the birth of the modern age. As part of their revolution for liberty, angry mobs stormed the cathedral and nearly destroyed it in 1790.


After looting it and decapitating many of the religious statues, the priests and other leaders of Christianity in Paris were put on trial during the Reign of Terror. Many of these religious leaders were massacred in the course of the terror.


In 1793 Christianity was outlawed. An atheist state religion known as the Cult of Reason was instituted. Within Notre Dame a Festival of Reason was held in which the religious imagery was stripped away. A seductively dressed actress marched through the cathedral and the people celebrated her as the Goddess of Reason.


Once again, the actions contradicted the ideals. In the name of liberty, equality, and brotherhood at least 40,000 people were killed. Western civilization lauded the object and defiled the virtues that were supposed to have been taught in the Christian cathedral.


This all took place in the shadow of Notre Dame.


World War II

Charles de Gaulle at Notre Dame

After World War II a special mass was held in Notre Dame to celebrate the liberation of Paris. Charles de Gaulle was there. As the people and leaders of France went on to thank God for their freedom and liberty, they fought desperately to hold their grip of power over nations and peoples they had colonized from Algeria to Vietnam.


In Notre Dame, they thanked God for their freedom and liberty. Then they walked outside and oppressed their fellow man in North Africa and Asia.


This all took place in the shadow of Notre Dame.


In the Shadow of Notre Dame

Flames and smoke billow from the Notre Dame Cathedral after a fire broke out in Paris April 15, 2019. Officials said the cause was not clear, but that the fire could be linked to renovation work. (CNS photo/Benoit Tessier, Reuters) See PARIS-NOTRE-DAME-FIRE April 15, 2019.

As the smoke and fire were contained in Paris today, French President Emmanuel Macron declared he wants the building repaired and restored within five years.  We need our symbols. We need our images. We need something to look toward instead of what we have always done in the shadow of Notre Dame.

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The media is talking about a national unity that has surged across France in the aftermath of the fires in Notre Dame. Such wishful thinking for unity will not hold for too long. France enacts more restrictions against religious life than any other nation in Europe except Russia. Today’s talks of unity hide the fact that France has become increasingly oppressive toward refugees and minorities and increasingly embracing of right wing nationalist sentiments.


We love symbols and we love imagery but the true sacred has never been housed or propagated by these. Our history shows that human hands have always corrupted what was meant to be sacred. What we have called sacred was frequently only an illusion bringing despair to those who looked behind the curtains.


And so perhaps the burning of Notre Dame symbolized a new phase of our history, a phase in which our disguises of sacredness are no longer effective to hide what we do that is profane. Perhaps our symbols and images are finally being burned away and the truth of the inadequacy of what we have built with human hands is being laid bare.

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