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Unholy fire in Paris

18 April 2019

AT THE time of writing, no cause has been identified for the blaze that devastated Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, but it is likely to be linked to the extensive renovation work that the building had been undergoing. This is when churches and cathedrals are at their most vulnerable. It is probable that the source of the fire is already known, but such enquiries seem an insignificant thing compared with the task that now faces the church and state authorities in France. There is no question that Notre-Dame will be rebuilt, confirmed by the French President’s pledge while smoke was still rising, and offers of funds have begun to be made.

The resolve to restore cannot erase the horror, however. Although churches are known intellectually to be the work of human hands, when the owners of those hands died centuries before, a building, particularly one that took so long to raise, acquires an enduring status. Again, intellectually we can acknowledge that the Church is, first of all, the People of God. But it is impossible to avoid investing ancient churches and cathedrals with great significance — not least because they were designed to convey something of the awe felt when entering God’s domain. The key message is permanence: the survival of our great churches through the centuries — despite threats and mishaps, some as disastrous as Monday’s fire — has represented the survival of the faith. It could be argued that the People of God rely too heavily on stone and brick to signal the presence of God; but church architecture is effectually symbolic. A lofty, calm, beautiful church interior makes a difference: it reminds the faithful about life beyond their own concerns, humbles them, and draws their vision away from self.

Fire is uncommon in Christian iconography, even though it is a recurrent image in scripture — the burning bush, Elijah’s competitive sacrifice, the fiery furnace, the flames of Pentecost. The Gospels make more of water. Thus the lighting of the fire on Easter Eve has particular significance. It represents the failure to extinguish the Light of the World; but it also recalls something homelier: the fire that the risen Christ kindled on the shoreline to cook fish before his bewildered disciples. Destructive fire terrified the ancients as much as it does our contemporaries, but it is perhaps as well to be reminded — and especially in Holy Week — that the world is made of elements beyond our control.

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