The symbolism of Notre Dame

It may not be an exaggeration to say millions of people around the world awoke with the same thought: what survived the fire at Notre Dame?  Many of us went to bed knowing that the damage to the ancient cathedral was not as bad as feared as we watched the live coverage from Paris of the shocking conflagration.

The dawn and each passing hour deliver encouraging news.  An altar and pews survive, as do many works of art.  Even the three large stained-glass rose windows, perhaps the most famous, if not the most visible, parts of the cathedral, survive.  Damaged, but miraculously intact.

Some may ask why millions of Earth's citizens experienced a shared deep and emotional interest in the burning of a Christian house of worship.  Atheists.  Jews.  Muslims.  Hindus.  Buddhists.  Animists.  Conservatives.  Liberals.  Even those who seemingly go out of their way to use the slightest opportunity to mock or ridicule Christians and their faith.

So why did all of these, and millions more, weep and stare in disbelief and whisper healing prayers or offer good thoughts for the best of possible outcomes?

Victor Hugo wrote, "Architecture has recorded the great ideas of the human race.  Not only every religious symbol, but every human thought has its page in that vast book."

St. Augustine said, "Symbols are powerful because they are the visible signs of invisible realities."

And Confucius taught, "Signs and symbols rule the world, not words or laws."

Symbols speak to us from our unconscious mind and from the beginning of human time on Earth.  Prehistoric humans carved and painted their symbols on rocks and the walls of caves.  Stone structures stand as ancient symbols of beliefs long forgotten.  Modern women and men illustrate their bodies with symbols that hold special meaning to themselves, which they communicate to others who share their personal interests.  Symbols fill our lives, our histories, our art, and our beliefs.  Symbols define us.  And we do not realize their importance until something like the fire at Notre Dame reminds us of their importance and our loss when they are lost.

This fire, though, goes beyond the obvious symbols of art and architecture, engineering, history, and religion.  It may be no coincidence that this fire broke out at the beginning of the holiest week for Christians.  Palm Sunday and the days that follow allow Christians to participate in the days leading up to the Friday crucifixion of Jesus and his resurrection three days later.  The birth of Christ, important though it be, is not at the core of Christian belief, which would not exist without the death and resurrection.

And so, this awful fire, this terrible event that threatened to destroy a symbol that spoke to many people in many ways, has become a new symbol.  For non-Christians, it has become a symbol of hope in the midst of despair, of rising from the ashes, an example of overcoming life's difficulties and disasters.  For Christians, it has become a symbol of Easter, an example of overcoming life's difficulties and disasters through the knowledge that God is with us, but more important, a symbol of the foundation of the faith: death and resurrection.

This Easter, when Christians say "Christ is risen" to each other, they will have the visual symbol of the standing structure dedicated to the Mother of God when they respond, "Indeed, He is risen."

John David Powell is an award-winning journalist from Texas.  His email address is

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