The fires burned and, for hours, seemed as though they couldn't possibly be contained. The world watched, stricken by horror, grief, and the numb comprehension that nothing would be left standing. Notre Dame Cathedral would be reduced to ash; and along with it 800 years of culture.
Notre Dame is a monument to God, yes, but also a monument to human achievement. Its towers were the literal pinnacle of architecture—the tallest structures in Paris for six centuries. Its rose windows are unmatched in their artistry, its artwork unparalleled in its beauty, and its 8,000-pipe organ unrivaled in its majesty.
So stunning was Notre Dame that the famed French philosopher John of Jandun wrote in 1323:
Where indeed, I ask, would they find two towers of such magnificence and perfection, so high, so large, so strong, clothed round about with such a multiple variety of ornaments? Where, I ask, would they find such a multipartite arrangement of so many lateral vaults, above and below? Where, I ask, would they find such light-filled amenities as the many surrounding chapels? Furthermore, let them tell me in what church I may see such a large cross, of which one arm separates the choir from the nave.
That cross has inspired countless millions in the 700 years since, standing as a towering reminder that all of the artistry, beauty, and majesty of Notre Dame are in service to something far simpler yet far more significant—a lonely cross standing on a hill on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
A century of construction of Notre Dame and centuries more spent perfecting it; generations of humanity’s finest builders, sculptors, painters all paying homage to a simple carpenter.
Yet what took human hands 800 years to create took the flames mere hours to destroy, and the world watched grief- and horror-stricken in its hopelessness; in the frailty and futility of human creation amid the flames.
Notre Dame was built to live forever—human ingenuity created it that way. It had survived centuries of wars and natural disasters and had been refurbished dozens of times to preserve its beauty for all time.
But this time, nothing could save it. Its life, as all lives eventually are, was over. Its majestic spire toppled; its imposing splendor burning before the world’s mourning eyes.
Hours later, though, when the world got its first glimpse inside what it assumed would be charred remains, it saw the same cross that John of Jandun did 700 years earlier, still standing as a towering reminder of hope even in the flames.
The cross, it seems, had conquered death.
Fittingly, during Holy Week, as the world prepares to celebrate resurrection, it witnessed it firsthand. The cross still stands as a reminder, yes, of the frailty of life and the inevitability of death, but also in the possibility of rebirth if only we allow ourselves to accept the cross and everything it stands for.
Notre Dame will be rebuilt, the world has already promised that. It will rise again as a monument to human achievement and testament to human resilience, but its cross doesn’t need to be rebuilt by human hands because, in truth, it can’t be.
The cross stands as a promise, as a testament to the resilience of that promise even when all hope seems lost, as a monument to the towering majesty of simple, beautiful, powerful faith.
The cross stands for us, and even amid the flames, it always will.