It is a peculiar thing, the way some stories are told and retold down through the ages, the way history coils around itself and unspools again as the Earth hurtles through the firmament. And every now and then, humanity quietly redeems itself in some small way, as it did this week, when a horrific cloud of smoke blackened the skies above the 4th arrondissement of Paris.
We need to start about 3,000 years ago, in the vicinity of what is now the Palestinian village of Nabi Samwil, just a few kilometres north of Jerusalem. A Levite woman by the name of Hannah was incapable of bearing children, so she prayed to God for the birth of a son, and she vowed that in return she would offer the child to God’s service. Upon the birth of her son, Samuel, Hannah kept her promise. Samuel would go on to become the high priest of Israel, one of the greatest of the Jewish prophets.
One of the most moving passages of the Tanakh is the Song of Hannah, from the Book of Samuel: The Lord makes poor and makes rich; He brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; He lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honour.
Composed roughly 1,000 years later, the story of Mary of Galilee, as first told by the Christian evangelists Luke and John, is more than merely striking in its similarity to the story of Hannah. Oddly enough, Mary’s story is more fully and lyrically told centuries later in the Koran – Mary is the only woman Islam’s most holy book mentions by name. In any case, as with Hannah’s son, Samuel, Mary’s son, Jesus, is believed to have been born by God’s intercession, and is also destined to a life in God’s service.
Like the Song of Hannah, the Song of Mary, which is a canticle known as the Magnificat in the Roman Catholic tradition, is a thing of great beauty. It also unfolds in much the same way: He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
Another 1,000 years or so after Luke and John wrote their accounts of Mary’s son, Jesus, Louis the Younger, King of the Franks, set out on what was to consume the life’s work of tens of thousands of artisans and tradesmen and labourers over nearly two centuries, in the construction of a cathedral on an island in the Seine to be consecrated in honour of Mary, Our Lady, Notre-Dame.
And then on Monday evening, almost 1,000 years after Louis the Younger imagined a towering masterpiece of Gothic architecture arising from the Île de la Cité in Paris, that magnificent symphony of medieval engineering, blood and sweat, aesthetic genius and religious devotion, was engulfed in a raging tower of flames.
The French, once fervently Roman Catholic, are now among the least religious people on Earth. Three in 10 French citizens identify as atheists, and another three in 10 say they’re not religious. Among the four in 10 who identify as being religious, most are Roman Catholics, but even among them, fewer than one in 10 regularly attends Mass on Sunday.
Even so, by late Monday evening, France was recoiling in horror.
Hundreds of firefighters worked through the night to subdue the blaze at Notre-Dame. There were, of course, the usual insinuations spread around by the Kremlin’s RT and Ruptly propaganda sites and regurgitated by far-right conspiracy theorists who were hoping, gleefully, that the horror would be found to be the handiwork of jihadists. French officials say there’s no evidence of arson or terrorism. The fire appears to have resulted from some kind accident. The cathedral has been undergoing extensive conservation and restoration work in recent weeks.
By dawn on Tuesday it was as if all of France was in mourning.
French President Emmanuel Macron declared a state of emergency and pledged to immediately focus the government’s resources on the task of ensuring that within five years, Notre-Dame would be rebuilt, and it would be “even more beautiful” than it was before the fire. By Tuesday night, more than one billion Euros had been donated for the project.
“The fire at Notre-Dame reminds us that our history never stops,” Macron said. “Everything that makes France material and spiritual is alive, and for this reason it is fragile and we must not forget that.”
Macron extended his condolences to Roman Catholics around the world. After all, the disaster was perhaps especially painful to devout Roman Catholics observing Holy Week, the most sacred week of the liturgical calendar. It’s even more important than Christmas. Holy Week began on Palm Sunday, which commemorates Jesus’s triumphant arrival in Jerusalem, and concludes on the evening of Maundy Thursday, which ushers in Easter – the crucifixion and resurrection that is central to Christ’s story.
But the cathedral is not just a place of veneration and pilgrimage for Catholics and other Christians. It’s central to some of the most momentous events in French history over the past millennium. Napoleon was crowned there. Joan of Arc was beatified there. Notre-Dame is a triumph of Middles Ages architecture beloved not only of the French. It also happens to be the most-visited monument in Europe, the destination of 12 million visitors every year.
As the smoke succumbed to the light of day, there was also cause to take heart. The great stained glass windows appear to have come through largely undamaged. Because of the restoration work, many of the cathedral’s treasures had been taken away for safekeeping. And the fire cast some light on our common humanity. Atheist or faithful, Christian, Jew or Muslim, the destruction of anything sacred is a painful thing to witness, and acutely felt by all of us.
While the blaze was still at its height, Joël Mergui, president of the Consistoire central israélite de France, the central office of religious affairs for French Jews, lamented: “This magnificent cathedral has been part of Paris, of the life of Parisians and French people for almost a thousand years. I express my deep solidarity and my strong sympathy to our Catholic friends, particularly affected on the eve of Easter.” The French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) offered similar condolences to its “Christian brothers” and called on French Muslims to mobilize behind the fundraising effort “for the reconstruction of this architectural masterpiece that is the glory of our country.”
Three thousand years since the Song of Hannah, two thousand years since the Song of Mary, a thousand years or thereabouts since work began on a glorious temple, Our Lady of Paris, that was to rise to the heavens from an island in the Seine, and “history never stops,” as Macron put it.
History unfolds down through the ages and coils around over and over again, and here we are in Holy Week, and a beautiful thing that arose from its near demolition in the convulsions of the French revolution, and survived the Nazi occupation of the 1940s, was again in flames.
And it will rise again.
Terry Glavin is an author and journalist.
- Woman from Halifax was inside Notre-Dame Cathedral when fire broke out
- EDITORIAL: Rescuing Notre-Dame
- KEITH SPICER: Notre-Dame, the heart of Paris, will regain her glory
- Survival of Notre Dame’s rose windows a small light in a day of darkness for Paris
- How do you fight a fire in an old cathedral? Pray for a miracle
- Americans, frequent visitors to Notre-Dame, begin fundraising efforts
- No sign of arson in Notre-Dame blaze as nation grieves for symbol
- Fire guts Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris; Macron pledges to rebuild
- IN IMAGES: Paris' Notre-Dame Cathedral burning
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019