The Flames of Holy Week
The flames that have engulfed the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris bring me back to a Palm Sunday nearly a half century ago when I visited there with a high school group. My emotional speed, responding to footage of the blaze; the tumbling spire and collapsing roof unlock the deepest vaults of my soul.
To a sixteen-year old, the Palm Sunday liturgy was long. It was much longer than the plaiting of palms and the singing of children I had been used to as a child. My six years of French class had failed me in keeping up with the priest. I couldn’t see the celebrants or the readers from my place deep in the nave. Classmates (and even the teacher) sought relief from the liturgy and gave a nod toward the door. I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t detach from this place. Perhaps it was the transcendent beauty of the soaring ceiling that seemed to welcome me into the tremendous mystery and presence of God. Perhaps it was the light projected through the rose windows that bathed us in a warmth that felt like an embrace of love from the source of its brilliance.
Perhaps it was standing on stones that had felt the feet of worshippers and pilgrims for a thousand years. Or, perhaps it was the countless architects and masons and workers who had dedicated themselves to something that would not be completed in their lifetime. I am still quick to point out that Notre Dame was never finished. The front towers were supposed to have spires. It was work left yet to be done.
This was a living church, a shrine for pilgrims, a sign of the living story of Jesus. Unlike home, I did not know the usher who had pressed the palm into my hand. Unlike home, these palms were native to France. Yet, although I was in a strange land, I knew this story and these signs of Jesus. And, this cathedral was built to draw us to God. And, it did me. A sacred marker in my pilgrimage, locked in the vault of my soul for safe keeping.
Yet, today Notre Dame is burning. As I write this, I believe they might save the towers and some of the façade, but the spire and the roof have collapsed. The framing timbers have been burned away.
I have wept much of the day.
Grief has been added to grief. The devastation of The United Methodist General Conference in the shattering of our denomination is still fresh and the way forward into the unknown is tentative, fragile and tender. Spires have collapsed, rooves have burned, timber framing has been consumed. I first heard the news while sitting at St. Mary’s hospital. Our Lady. Weeping at the collapse of her church. More specifically, in the Pieta, over the body of her broken son, Jesus.
Grief has been added to grief. But I write this on Holy Week Monday. The days immediately ahead are littered with the unavoidable chapters of a Last Supper, a Trial and Beating and the Torturous Death on Good Friday. The shattering and the blaze are a true part of the pilgrimage.
But they unlock the deepest vaults of the soul. Although there are billows of acrid smoke and shards of glass that make it difficult to envision, the vault holds the fundamental convictions of faith. Hope is the eternal promise of the resurrection. I cannot leave it. The transcendent beauty and the mystery and companionship of God are eternal and will not leave or be taken. The light refracted through the windows is captured in the eye of the soul and is magnified in a faithful heart. The connections of love and care, of commitment to a mission beyond ourselves and a promised justice that is a clear vision beyond all destructive fire and fear is beyond this day, but it is truly there.
I have hope that I will dry my eyes and my heart will stop breaking. I have hope that the deep vault of my soul will guide me to find the Easter flowers growing in the ash and amongst the broken glass. I have hope that the promise of God in Jesus for a transformed world, resplendent with love and justice for all our siblings. I hope that weeping Mary will laugh with joy and Jesus will rejoice with us!