There is something parable-like in the destruction of Notre Dame Cathedral. Its architectural splendour has graced the Parisian skyline for nearly a millennia. Its soaring artistry and elegance has taken the breath away of thousands of worshippers, citizens and tourists. Its history anchored it to the Christian worldview which dominated Europe for many of those centuries.
Now in a vastly changed Europe it lies in ruins. Something great has been lost—and in the destruction of Notre Dame is a parable of the spiritual state of Europe.
A Loss of Transcendence – Notre Dame was the home of architectural innovation for the newly developing Gothic style. Characterised by high vaulted ceilings supported by flying buttresses, by grouped pointed arched windows and a great rose window in stained glass, the overall effect of the soaring ceiling and influx of light was to overwhelm the visitor. The intention was to make you feel small—in the presence of something, or someone, monumentally greater than you. And in the presence of someone whose beauty and splendour far exceeded the richness of the architecture. Now it lies in ruins.
And Europe no longer stands in awe of God. Nor has it for a long time. In 1715 the cathedral was the scene of Louis XIV’s funeral. He had styled himself as “the Sun-King” and “the Great”. He planned his own funeral to be a spectacular event, with the cathedral darkened and his golden casket lit by a single candle, to focus the crowd on his greatness.
The King’s instructions were followed until Bishop Massillion climbed into the pulpit. Then he reached down and snuffed out the candle and through the darkness proclaimed, “Only God is Great!”
As we have lost the transcendence of Notre Dame’s architecture, Europe has lost the sense of transcendence, of there being someone far greater and grander than us. We are overwhelmed with our own awesomeness. Yet at the same time we ache for transcendence—hence the sense of loss at Notre Dame. We desperately need to recover that sense of transcendence—of a God before whom we must all one day bow.
A Loss of Identity – It has been interesting to watch the reaction of the French people to the fire. You get the sense that something foundational to the French identity has been lost. Not in the church or in Christianity, but in the history, the events, the literature, the iconic nature of the building.
As if they had replaced God with the building.
Europe wanders lost these days too, like a person with amnesia, not quite knowing who they are, but having some lingering Judeo-Christian mannerisms buried in the depths of habitual memory. It knows some values matter, but it can't remember why. It has a suspicion identity comes from the transcendent but quite what the transcendent is, it isn't sure. God has been replaced long ago, and when crisis hits we don't know who we are.
We always get our sense of identity from somewhere and having thrown off God, we hang it on all the wrong hooks: job, status, success, beauty. We can even replace God with religion. We each build our own cathedrals and when they are destroyed then we end up lost.
We are meant to get our identity from someone who doesn’t change, who can’t be destroyed.
There is a solution to both these losses. The life saving reality of Christianity is not bound to spectacular buildings, traditions, or relics, but is found in one who is gloriously transcendent and yet who took our identity so that we could have his: Jesus Christ.