Yesterday, I took a second to mindlessly scroll through my social media, as I often do. But my mindless scrolling came to an abrupt and screeching halt as images of Notre-Dame de Paris going up in flames started popping up on my news feed.
Notre-Dame de Paris, which means “Our Lady of Paris” is a cathedral that is close to 850 years old and took almost 200 years to build. Although it’s not yet clear what caused the fire, it seems like authorities have ruled it out as an accident. Officials say that it might be linked to renovations that’s been taking place.
Imagine being the construction worker who dropped his cigarette and became the guy responsible for burning down an 850 year old cathedral!
It is quite a shocker and it couldn’t happen at a stranger time. In a few days it will be Good Friday, the day where Christians all over the world remember Jesus’ execution. I tend to look for the symbolism behind things and the images of Notre-Dame in flames could hardly be more symbolic. Churches, temples, mosques and cathedrals are places where people come to worship their gods and goddesses, but they represent something much deeper. They represent man’s insatiable need for certainty. In a world where nothing is certain and everything could go to shit at any moment, we will find almost anything to cling to.
Traditionally, it has been the gods and goddesses that we cling to; we would build temples and cathedrals in their honor and bring anything from prayers to blood sacrifices in order to keep them happy. As long as the gods are happy, we reckon, everything will be okay. Knowing that there is a God who will have our backs when things do go to shit, gives us at least some certainty.
But what happens when the very thing we cling to goes up in flames?
I visited Israel many years ago and they can tell you a thing or two about temples burning to the ground. According to the Hebrew Bible, Solomon built the first Temple in the 10th century BCE. When the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem in 586 BCE, they destroyed it and took the Jewish people into exile. Some of them returned later and rebuilt what became known as the Second Temple some time around 516 BCE. Herod the Great later began a massive expansion project, almost doubling the Temple in size.
Now, if you were a first century Jew, your life pretty much revolved around the Temple. You can always tell what the most important thing in a society is by looking at which buildings are the tallest. In earlier times it would have been the Temple in Jerusalem or Notre-Dame in Paris. These days, however, the banks, businesses and financial institutions dominate the skylines of the land. Think about when the Twin Towers fell all those years back. For a time, they stood taller than anything else ever built by man. They were symbols of wealth and prosperity – a testament to the American dream realized. So, when they fell, it totally rocked America’s sense of certainty. If this could happen, anything could happen. Suddenly nothing was certain anymore.
And this is why Notre-Dame in flames days before Good Friday is eerily symbolic. Christians will be celebrating Jesus’ crucifixion this Good Friday like it is a victory – God defeating the devil and all that jazz. But for me, the cross of Jesus isn’t a victory and it isn’t a symbol of winning – it is a symbol of losing. It is a symbol of everything going to shit; it is a symbol of all our hopes and dreams going up in flames.
Imagine following Jesus around for something like three years believing that he is the Messiah and that he is going to deliver you from the tyranny of the Roman Empire. Now imagine him getting arrested and executed.
“Well… shit, that didn’t go the way we planned.”
Imagine how devastating that must’ve been! All your hopes and dreams beaten to a bloody pulp and nailed to a cross. But the truth is, that’s how life is. No matter how hard we try, how high we build our temples and how passionately we dedicate ourselves to the gods; nothing in this world is certain and everything can go up in flames at any moment.
Religion attempts to offer certainty in a world that is inherently uncertain, but I think that this is a misuse of religion.
But hey, as long as we keep the pews full, right?
What if, instead of giving us certainty, religion is meant to help us come to terms with uncertainty? I believe that this was always the point. Alan Watts said that, “If we cling to belief in God, we cannot likewise have faith, since faith is not clinging but letting go.”
What if the point is to let go? Even of God.
70 years after Jesus died, there was a revolt in Jerusalem. This wasn’t the first time this happened and the Roman Emperor, Nero was getting tired of these revolts. He thought up a plan that would crush the Jewish people’s spirit once and for all. So, he burnt Herod’s temple to the ground and scattered the Jewish people.
Many of the early Jesus followers ended up in Antioch, Greece. Their world was turned upside down – once again the Temple was destroyed and they were exiles in a strange land. It is to this audience that Matthew’s Gospel was written. In it we find the words, “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Matt 6:25 NIV)
The more we try to cling to things, the more we tend to lose it. I believe that this has always been the point of the Jesus story. It’s meant to help us let go of all our attachments.
As the 850 year old Notre-Dame stands smoldering, we are reminded that nothing is permanent. We suffer because of our inability to accept the fact that we grow older, get weaker, lose relationships and money along the way and eventually die.
The cross of Jesus is a reminder that, in the end, everyone loses. But coming to terms with this brings with it a strange sense of peace and liberation. I believe that this, more than anything else, has always been the point of healthy religion.