I don’t know how many of you were following the news of the fire in Paris on Monday. It was one of those surreal moments where everyone in the world actually notices the same thing. I was in the doctor’s office with James and one of my old friends from Europe was sending me these frantic text messages, Did you see that Notre Dame is burning? Turn on the TV! I didn’t turn on the TV, but I did read and look at pictures over the next day, and it was just stunning and fascinating. It’s Holy Week, and one of the most famous churches in the world – honestly, maybe the most famous church in the world, with the possible exception of St. Peter’s in Rome, goes up in flames. And for anyone who’s ever visited that church, it was like a knife in the heart.
But yesterday, a priest friend posted a French twitter link to a video interview with the Archbishop of Paris. People were asking the usual questions: how did this happen, why did this happen, can it be rebuilt, etc. And he had this really amazing statement, which I want to read for you in translation.
We must ask why Notre Dame was constructed. Why this human genius? -- because they could have done something functional. It's far more than functional. And why? Because what is honored there is absolutely splendid, that's what we believe. And if you want to ask the real question, what jewel is this jewel box for? It's not for the Crown of Thorns, you know? It's for a piece of bread. It's astonishing. How can one construct such a work of art for a piece of bread? That piece of bread is the Body of Christ. And that endures. Nobody will ever be able to destroy that.
Now that is a Christian priest, who’s able to look in the face of this tragedy and say: here is something true.
Stick with me a second and think about the kind of contradictions here. The important thing about the cathedral of Notre Dame isn’t some physical object but something that is deeply spiritual – it’s a spiritual object, a spiritual reality that can’t be destroyed by a fire. But at the same time, he says, the splendor of this spiritual thing inspires us to build these wonderful, genius works of stone and glass and beauty. How can that be?
It can be because, in Christianity, material things aren’t somehow unspiritual. Spiritual things aren’t somehow unphysical. Yes, there are visible things and there are invisible things. But to act as if they inhabit completely different worlds, that’s not Christianity, that’s the ancient heresy of gnosticism — a heresy that’s alive and popular as ever. One version of it says that to be spiritual we have to hate the body and physical things. We have to focus on invisible things and not get distracted by matters of touch and taste and smell and sight. Another version of it says that, because spiritual things are the only thing that matters, we can do what we like with our bodies and our world, because, who cares? We can sleep with who we like, eat what we like, transform our bodies into whatever we like, abuse the earth when it’s convenient, because none of those things are spiritual realities.
Real Christianity, the Christianity we see during Holy Week, insists that the deepest and most enduring spiritual realities are tied to history. We can talk all we want about what it means for God to love us, but this week we get reminded about what that looks like in the flesh. Sight, smell, taste, touch, sound. Holy Week is physical. We wash feet. We kiss crosses. We light fires. And it is the most spiritual thing that the Church does.
As we enter into Thursday and Friday, remember that. And get involved. This is — like any kind of real love — not just something for your brain, but something for your hands and your feet and your eyes and your heart. Amen.
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The interview video is linked here in French.
I’m grateful to the Rev. Beth Maynard of Emmanuel Church, Champaign, IL, for sharing the link and translating the above excerpt.
About the Author: The Revd. Dr. Samuel Keyes is the Chaplain at Saint James School, a coed boarding and day school for students in grades 8-12 in Hagerstown, Maryland.