“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
~John the Baptist in The Gospel According to Matthew 3:11
Like millions of people, I watched the news coverage of the Notre Dame de Paris fire in horror and could not force myself to turn away. I shared my shock with countless people around the world live-tweeting as this immense monument of religious and cultural heritage went up in smoke.
When the spire fell, I gasped. Yellow, black, and white haze filled the air, and I could almost smell the soot. As embers fell onto reporters and bystanders, I hoped that none of them would set the adjacent buildings on fire.
The crowds sang Marian hymns, and I prayed my knotted rosary. Maybe it was a sense of solidarity, or it could have been out of desperation that drew me to say fifty Hail Marys. I just couldn’t believe what I was witnessing, and I wanted the flames to end.
Countless ideas wafted into my mind. How did the fire start? Was it set purposely or did an accident ignite the flames? Was anyone injured? Did the relics survive? Will the outer walls collapse? How could anything endure that baptism of fire?
After what felt like centuries, word arrived that the building would live on. Photographs circulated on social media showing that much of the interior of the cathedral had survived.
I texted my oldest daughter, “This is nothing less than miraculous.”
By evening, much of the news coverage had returned to the humdrum Washington intrigues. Tax returns, subpoenas, and investigations nearly replaced the initial fervor of seeing the fiery demise of one of the world’s most influential religious landmarks.
Before the night ended, though, uber-wealthy families had pledged hundreds of millions of euros to rebuild the structure. The cathedral had been under renovation for years, and the leaders had been begging the public for money to restore the church. I wondered why it took this devastation to elicit such funding I wondered why it took this devastation to elicit such funding.
Maybe ordinary renovations were too mundane. Fixing a leaky roof, crumbling statuary, and ravages due to time does not feel as urgent as rebuilding after an apocalyptic conflagration.
Maintenance doesn’t have the same excitement as rebuilding.
It’s sadly true of marriages, parent-child relationships, and friendships too. There is nothing particularly glamorous about doing the dishes, listening to a loved one complain about a difficult day at work, or sitting up all night with a sick child.
However, if we fail to attend to those “little things,” in time we may find our cherished relationships ablaze. We’ll rush to douse the flames by going to marital therapy, attending family counseling, or promising to be more attentive.
And all of that might succeed. We might put out the fire and begin to rebuild, but this takes months and years of renewed attentiveness to remake the gutted interior.
I call upon you, O Lord; come quickly to me;
give ear to my voice when I call to you.
Let my prayer rises as incense before you,
and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.
Who can deny that our global society faces burning questions? Every day we hear stories of hatred, racism, wealth inequality, global climate change, and war. A month ago, an adult child of a white sheriff in Louisiana torched three black churches. Powerful nations round up refugees and house them in camps. Political unrest in countries like Venezuela exact an expensive human cost.
The Magnificat, prayed by Mary, speaks to the cries and hopes of our day as much as it did in hers.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
Mary anticipated a more just society, one in which the powerful would lose their ability to crust the lowly. She believed that people in poverty would one day find their needs met while those who fostered the conditions that made poverty would lose their dominion.
Thank God for the firefighters who saved the sacred building and for the many people willing to participate in the reconstruction project.
They remind me of the original builders of Notre Dame. Only a committed community could envision and complete a construction project of that scale — especially in medieval times.
Consider the logistics of architectural planning, harvesting trees, and sculpting stone. Generations of people without the aid of modern equipment lifted blocks, cut lumber, and transported materials. Glass blowers created masterpieces over the course of decades. Someone had to feed the workers, pay the bills, and pray for blessings. Masons, carpenters, laborers, bakers, medics, and clerics worked together to raise a temple to Our Lady.
Imagine coming home after a hard day of hoisting stone knowing that you will never see this project completed. To sustain themselves and to finish the cathedral, people needed faith for several generations.
We need a similar belief today — not just to rebuild a sacred church, but to build up our community. This requires a strong desire to begin the project, faith in each other to value our shared interests, and a commitment to trust future generations.
We await the assessment of what needs to be done in Paris, and that may take several weeks. Beyond the cathedral, do we have the courage to address what we must do to rebuild our communities?
Meanwhile I hope and pray that Our Lady unites our families, friendships, and societies through this disastrous tragedy. May we, like Mary at the Annunciation, say yes to our moment of confusion to find it and ourselves full of grace.