Notre Dame fire: how the Bible speaks to a modern tragedy

Last night the world was shocked by images of one of the greatest buildings in the world ablaze. Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris caught fire during renovation work. It is 850 years old and has been at the centre of French and European culture for all that time.

Irreplaceable treasures have been lost. Incomparably beautiful artwork has been destroyed. The ancient roof, a work of art in itself, has been consumed. The nation is in mourning. One bishop said he ‘screamed with horror’ when he saw what was happening.

In 586 BC, Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the armies of King Nebuchadnezzar – an even more shattering blow. The prophet Isaiah wrote: ‘Our holy and glorious temple, where our ancestors praised you, has been burned with fire, and all that we treasured lies in ruins’ (Isaiah 64.11).

That is what the people of France have woken up to this morning.

Notre Dame has not, unlike the temple, been totally destroyed: the stone walls are still standing. The French government has promised to rebuild it, and thoughts will soon turn to how this can be done. But everyone is aware that too much has been lost for it ever to be the same again, and everyone is grieving.

The Bible sometimes bears witness to terrible things. But it also speaks a message of hope: in just the next chapter of Isaiah, we read of a new creation. ‘Be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy’ God says (Isaiah 65.18).

When England’s Old St Paul’s Cathedral was destroyed in the 1666 Fire of London, a stone was found in the ruins bearing a single word from a Latin inscription: ‘Resurgam’. It means ‘I shall rise again’, and was taken as an emblem of hope.

Perhaps the most extraordinary image from the cathedral appears to show a heap of debris still glowing from the fire. Behind it, shining gold, is a cross.

Perhaps it’s too soon for the French people to be hopeful. But we should all pray that Notre Dame will be rebuilt to the glory of God – because as well as being a great monument to human civilisation, it is first of all a place of worship.

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