A SIGN FROM ABOVE
By DARRYL TIPPENS
On Monday I watched with dismay as the fires consumed the nave of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. I have had the pleasure and joy of visiting the cathedral twice. Of many beautiful churches I have visited over the years, it’s easy to say no other church in the world is quite like the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
Watching the roof go up in flames and watching the central spire tumble to earth felt like a spiritual and psychic wounding. Of all the examples of the destruction of human works of creativity—not caused by an obvious act of war or terrorism—the burning of Notre Dame is perhaps the most dramatic and poignant in my lifetime. April 15, 2019, will long remain in my memory. The president of France put it well: “a part of us is burning.”
In a time when we are surprised almost daily by strange and shocking events, why has this one affected so many? People who have never visited the cathedral, many who are not Catholic or even religious, have wept over this scene of destruction. It will take some time to discern what this loss means; but even as the cinders cool, a few thoughts come to mind.
Notre Dame reminds us that beauty is necessary to human existence; and when we are deprived of it, we are somehow diminished. Our species is hard-wired to seek and revel in loveliness. One need not be a sophisticated artistic type to savor the beauty of created things or wonder at the glories of nature. When we see something beautiful defaced or destroyed, we intuit that we have been cheated. We feel bereaved, even if we can’t say why.
The destruction of beauty reminds us of something fundamental. What we love is marked by fragility and impermanence. The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus imagined that the whole universe amounts to a giant conflagration, which is to stay that all things are in constant flux like a fire: “All things give way; nothing remains,” he said. Even 800-year-old architectural masterpieces like Notre Dame Cathedral are subject to decay and destruction, just like all the other things we love, including ourselves. The fires are shocking precisely because they incinerate our illusions of permanence and security.
Something else emerges from the ashes of Notre Dame. It’s hard to name, but it’s relevant to this particular moment in the Christian calendar. There is a kind of spiritual “logic” in the timing, for Holy Week is founded on the core Christian paradox that God works good out of evil and destruction foreshadows new life. If Holy Week means anything, it’s that God turns loss into gain and defeat into victory. Good Friday leads to Easter.
As in nature so it is in the Bible, fire is both destructive and cleansing. The fires in California last fall and winter have been followed by nature’s renewal. Today the hillsides burned by fires are a riot of beauty. (My California friends are sending me photos of fields of flowers, from the very places they feared for their lives just months ago.) A biologist friend who has spent his life studying plant life in the Santa Monica mountains points out that certain plants will not germinate unless the seeds have first been touched by fire. No fire, no new life for these plants.
What is true in nature is true in the realm of the spirit. In the heat of loss and pain, there is the promise of new life. Of the many pictures pouring forth from the destruction of Notre Dame Cathedral, one of the most moving is of the burned out interior of the nave. There, against the backdrop of charred 400-year-old roof timbers, in the dim shadows stands the gleaming altar cross.
This dramatic contrast of beauty and destruction reminds me of a scene from Mrs. Miniver, the Oscar-winning film set during World War II, which tells the story of British people who suffered the ravages of the conflict. The movie was released in 1942, after Dunkirk and after Pearl Harbor, but years before success against the Axis powers was sure. Mountains of loss and hardship lay ahead.
In the final scene of the movie [available on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QemLEN2KfZI], a congregation of weary Brits worships in the shell of a bombed out church. The priest’s message of hope in the midst of ruin makes me think of Notre Dame’s fires during Holy Week. Destruction is real and almost overwhelming, but there is reason to hope. As the King James Version puts it, God promises “beauty for ashes … the garland of praise for the spirit of heaviness” (Isa. 61:3).
Tatianna, an old friend in St. Petersburg, Russia, wrote to me today to tell me how much the loss at Notre Dame affected her. She wondered if the cross shining among the ashes in the cathedral nave might be “a sign from above.” As I think about it, the cross among the ashes is only the most recent of many “signs from above.” Since that first Holy Week almost two thousand years ago, believers have continuously witnessed the truth that death is not the end, but the beginning: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it” (John 1:5).
Darryl Tippens is retired University Distinguished Scholar at Abilene Christian University.