The Sermon in Stone at Notre Dame

Notre Dame has burned. The cathedral had — “had,” how terrible to write — one […]

Eric Dorman / 4.16.19

Notre Dame has burned. The cathedral had — “had,” how terrible to write — one of the oldest surviving wood frames in Paris’ history, comprising 52 acres of trees. Workers cut those trees down in the 12th century and made the beams. Each beam required the wood of a whole tree. The intricate lattice of beautiful, historic woodwork was nicknamed “The Forest.” And now the forest is gone.

The Cathedral of Notre Dame hosted the sacre of Napoleon I. The crowning of Henry VI. The beatification of Joan of Arc. Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris. The Requiem Mass for Charles de Gaulle. The Huguenots desecrated it in the 16th Century. So did French Revolutionaries in the 18th. Its bells announced the coronations of kings, queens, and emperors, as well as the end of two world wars.

Millions of prayers ascended from within its walls. Millions of visitors — people of all faiths and none — stood outside it and in, struck silent with awe by its beauty, its size, its transcendence. Millions of hosts consecrated on its altar. Millions of bodies and souls, washed in baptism. Millions of sins absolved by God’s grace through the proclamation of His word.

But this Holy Monday, it burned, and much of it did not survive. The paintings, the windows, the rails, the spires, the organ, the roof: gone or likely damaged beyond repair.

My wife Alex and I were in Paris less than six months ago. We climbed the towers and looked out over the city. We touched “Quasimodo’s bell.” We toured the interior and the exterior of the consecrated space. We learned about how the Cathedral waxed and waned as the center of Parisian life (and French life in general). We studied its architecture, its art, its sounds and smells. Of all the things we saw, heard, smelled and touched, this relief — this sermon in stone — fed my soul the most:

This is the arch above the main doorway of Notre Dame. The exalted Christ presents the wounds in his hands to believers about to face judgment. To his right, the cross. To his left, the spear that pierced his side. He’s assuring the redeemed that their sins are forgiven and that they have nothing to fear. Lucifer and his devils are yanking down on one side of the scale, trying to cheat and add weight so that God has to punish the sinner. They are unsuccessful. No one can bring any charge or weight any scale against those whom God has justified.

Note the proper place of Satan. He is not the opposite of God, but rather stands opposite St. Michael the Archangel, both underneath Christ as mere creatures. Note the resurrection scene beneath St. Michael and Satan. It includes kings, queens, farmers, workers, children, religious leaders, and more — signifying the impartiality of God in both salvation and judgment.

The image speaks for itself. It’s enough to say that it represents the truth: about God, about us, about our place in the cosmos, about his rule over it.

Who knows if this relief remains intact?

It’s Holy Week, and here we are. One of France’s — of humanity’s — greatest works, wrecked forever. This is the world: a place of destruction and death, of sorrow and mourning, of sin and strife and pain and gnashing of teeth. And just in case it wasn’t bad enough, on Friday, we kill God. We destroy the Temple. We burn down the Cathedral. And death gets one day. One day to laugh and mock and beat its chest. One day to taunt and accuse.

Look at the flame-engulfed, holy ruin called Notre Dame and despair. Like her, our Lord was destroyed, and on Saturday, we quietly consider a world in which God lies buried in the earth. A world in which death and our sins swallow us.

On Sunday, though, from the ashes, God wins.


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7 responses to “The Sermon in Stone at Notre Dame”

  1. Larry Parsley says:

    Powerful and beautiful. Thanks!

  2. Josh Retterer says:

    Love this.

  3. Patricia F. says:

    You are spot-on in your post, Eric.

    I just found out about the fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral. It is heart-breaking to see the photos of the destruction. And what an amazing fact about the building of the wooden roof!

    Your description of the sculpture above the west door is powerful. And very apt, for the beginning of Holy Week.

    Thank you.

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