The fire was horrific. One of Western Civilization’s iconic landmarks was consumed in flame. For Catholics, watching the raging inferno was particularly poignant as it came during Holy Week. But for all people of the Abrahamic traditions—Jews, only days before the beginning of Passover; and Muslims, less than three weeks before the start of the holy month of Ramadan—the raging fire represented both the fragility of life into which faithful individuals are cast and the enduring power that religious institutions and iconography has over the faithful.
Thankfully, the fire has been ruled an accident. But the incident represented so much more than the image on our TV screens of flames savagely licking the spires of a treasured ancient edifice. It was a blow to the sensitivities of people of faith and culture, desecration of a symbol that for centuries has withstood social upheaval, revolutions, world wars, the plague. Pilgrims—religious and secular—have come to Notre Dame for generations to marvel at her stained glass, hear her magnificent bells, be inspired by the history that passed beneath her spires, transported to a place between here and eternity.
And as the whole world held its collective breath in hopes that the great cathedral would not be felled by the flames, France’s President Macron stood before the world to claim that though the building was damaged, the French spirit would survive. He offered a hopeful promise that the cathedral would be rebuilt…and soon, within five years.
And in our divided and disillusioned world, we all seemed to come together in a collective sigh that out of the ashes of this tragedy, we would again find common purpose and unite in solemn celebration of the very best in the human spirit.
That feeling lasted…for about a minute.
And then—unexpectedly–something even uglier than the fearsome flames reared its head. As wealthy French executives stepped up and pledged extravagant sums of euros to rebuild the cathedral, others cried foul—discounting their enthusiastic generosity and condemning their motives as everything from racism to elitism. Reverence for life and culture, the spirit of unity and good will dissipated even before the flames were finally extinguished.
In a matter of hours, more than 600 million euros were pledged to rebuild the cathedral. In less than two days, pledges topped a billion. But the pushback was fierce. The yellow vest protest in France is largely rooted in France’s economic inequality and the benevolence of France’s wealthiest citizens met vocal resistance. The rush to rebuild Notre Dame—initially seen as an expression of national unity, pride and generosity—soon became yet additional evidence of what divides us.
James McAuley, writing in the Washington Post, cited a tweet from South Africa-based journalist Simon Allison: ‘“In just a few hours today, 650 million euros was donated to rebuild Notre Dame. In six months, just 15 million euros has been pledged to restore Brazil’s National Museum. I think this is what they call white privilege”’ and added, “Inside and outside of France, the unease has centered on a perceived disparity between concern for the fate of beautiful monuments and concern for the struggles of real people.”
For Christians, it is especially poignant that the fire and its aftermath happened at a time in the Christian calendar fraught with emotion. Holy Week marks the roller coaster ride through complex and contradictory passions leading up to Jesus’ death (and common to life itself) from the joy of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, to his rejection by the crowd, the betrayal and denial of the apostles and his suffering on the cross. The roller coaster ultimately ends at the miracle of his resurrection on Easter Sunday.
This week’s fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame—and its contentious aftermath—offered yet another reminder why Easter moments are so important to humankind. We are hard to rise and quick to fall. Without the promise of Easter so central to the Christian faith, we would all be destined for lives filled with suspicion, ingratitude and fear; and a denial of the privileges so many of us receive without merit and so quickly overlook without thinking.