Encountering God at Notre Dame: Mary, Relics, and the Mass
On Monday the world watched with bated breath as Notre Dame cathedral was engulfed in flames of fire. Representative of human and cultural achievement Notre Dame is one of the greatest examples of French Gothic architecture and is unique for its size, antiquity, and innovative construction. Its spire, enormous and colorful rose windows, flying buttresses, and its intricate decoration have made it one of the most recognized symbols not only in Paris but around the globe. In the words of one old writer "[it shines] like the sun among stars.”
But Notre Dame has another context. It's not simply exterior beauty but is a beauty drenched in a religious context. The very name "Notre Dame" betrays its sacredness. In English its name is "Our Lady" and was built as a monument to the Virgin Mary and continues to excite the Marian devotion of the Roman Catholic Church. Jean de Chelles a master mason and sculptor who contributed to the cathederal, captured the great aim in the inscription "for the glory of the Mother of Christ." The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "The Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things" (966). In their teaching she has become "a mother to us in the order of grace" and is "invoked in the Church under titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix" (969).
Notre Dame cathedral is also home to many relics. A relic isn't simply an artifact with historical value but is important to Roman Catholic piety – the promotion of godliness. Again, as their catechism teaches about popular piety: "The religious sense of the Christian people has always found expression in various forms of piety surrounding the Church's sacramental life, such as the veneration of relics, visits to sanctuaries, pilgrimages, processions, the stations of the cross, religious dances, the rosary, medals, etc" (1674).
In their understanding a relic is a physical object associated with Jesus or the saints that gives a spiritual gift of grace. This isn’t because of some hocus-pocus magic but they believe God uses relics as a means to communicate his favor and blessing. Thus, the faithful are to “venerate” relics. Veneration is the practice of honoring and, in their teaching, is distinct from worship. Roman Catholics distinguish between the supreme honor that is given to God (latria) and inferior honor that is given to angels and saints (dulia). As Jerome once wrote: “We do not worship relics, we do not adore them, for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the creator. But we venerate the relics of the martyrs.” In the mind of many that’s a distinction without a difference.
The practice of venerating relics is inextricably connected to their belief of the special intercessory power which saints enjoy in heaven. Because of the “communion of saints” — i.e. the faithful in heaven, on earth, and in purgatory are one body with Christ as head — the saints in heaven intercede for the faithful. The Council of Trent authoritatively asserted: “The saints who reign together with Christ offer up their own prayers to God for men. It is good and useful suppliantly to invoke them, and to have recourse to their prayers, aid, and help for obtaining benefits from God, through His Son Jesus Christ our Lord” (Session 25 Decree 2). When someone venerates a relic they show honor by a physical gesture while raising heart and mind to God invoking the intercession of the saint.
The veneration of relics isn’t a lost practice. Again, the Council of Trent concluded that relics “should be venerated.” Their importance and significance was reaffirmed in the Code of Canon Law published under the authority of Pope John Paul II in 1983 which is still binding on their church: “To foster the sanctification of the people of God, the Church commends to the special and filial reverence of the Christian faithful the Blessed Mary ever Virgin, Mother of God, whom Christ established as the mother of all people, and promotes the true and authentic veneration of the other saints whose example instructs the Christian faithful and whose intercession sustains them.” It added: "The practice of displaying sacred images in churches for the reverence of the faithful is to remain in effect."
The cathedral of Notre Dame is home to many relics and great efforts were taken in Monday's fire to preserve them. Included in their treasury are the teeth, bones, and hair of the patron saints of Paris, St. Denis and St. Genevieve, together with the tunic of St. Louis. However, some of the most cherished are the relics of the Passion – objects associated with the death of Jesus Christ. Among those kept in Notre Dame are a piece of the cross, a nail, and the crown of thorns believed to have been worn by Jesus.
The crown of thorns came to Notre Dame in the thirteenth century and is still brought out for a special veneration mass on the first Friday of every month, and on each Friday during Lent. There's a subtle (maybe forgotten) reminder in that. Notre Dame wasn't built to inspire gratitude for human and cultural acheivement, but to celebrate the Mass. Of course, in Roman Catholic theology Mass is the "source and summit of the Christian life." In the Eucharist there is a sacramental offering – a propitiatory sacrifice – of Christ's sacrifice wherein the bread and wine become the physical body and blood of Jesus Christ. This Eucharist is always celebrated in association with the Pope who is the sign and servant of the unity of the church. That unity extends to both heaven and earth and so relics are used in Mass as a way of reminding observers that when the Mass is kept it's being celebrated with the saints and angels in heaven. Thus, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal states: “The practice of placing relics of Saints, even those not Martyrs, under the altar to be dedicated is fittingly retained” (No. 302).
To many, Notre Dame is an achievement of human creativity — architecturally, artistically, and aesthetically. But the architecture, artistry, and aesthetics are infused with the religious purpose of a cathedral: to facilitate an encounter with God. It is an edifice built for the promotion of a religious system that is contradictory to biblical Christianity and drenched in the blasphemy of Marian devotion, the idolatry of relics, and the superstition of the Mass. This system is so unbiblical and powerless in its character that it's the reason many of us are positively and self-consciously Protestant.
I don't know if there's a lesson to be extracted from all of this, but as I watched the inferno the words of Scripture came to mind: “For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, store — each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done” (1 Corinthians 3:11-13).