Last summer, my wife, Patty, and walked past the Notre-Dame Cathedral. The line looked excruciatingly long. And so, we passed by and crossed the Pont des Coeurs bridge and explored the Left Bank and the Latin Quarter instead.
This last Monday, I watched, along with hundreds of thousands of Parisians and millions around the world, as Notre Dame, astonishingly, collapsed in flames. Though I’d never been inside it, the grand cathedral was nevertheless inside of me. Notre Dame is the spiritual heart not only of Paris, but in many ways, the consciousness of the Western world—religious and non-religious.
Since the fourth century, a place of worship has occupied the site—the current structure, since the mid-twelfth century. Notre-Dame is an architectural masterpiece, a symbol of artistic genius and ardent spiritual devotion. It’s stood as the cultural and spiritual center of Western life for 850 years—withstanding plague, war, environmental disaster, revolutionary iconoclasm, and even Hitler’s destructive hatred for any glory that wasn’t German.
One journalist wrote as she watched Notre Dame burn: “To those of us who live in Paris, Notre-Dame is a familiar landscape, as solid as a mountain. Durable as time. How could it burn so fast?
Ann Hidalgo, mayor of Paris, watched the flames from her office window, and confessed to what so many felt: “absolutely powerless”.
The historian, Jean-Francois Colosimo said the scene evoked images of the end of the world. The fire, he said, seemed to communicate “the extreme fragility of our situation.”
To feel horror at Notre-Dame’s collapse is human, and yet it’s also an experience of privilege. Today, over two hundred people were killed in terrorist attacks on churches Sri Lanka and high-end hotels catering to Westerners. I do feel myself chastened that I’m more affected by the collapse of a building than by the deaths of hundreds. I’m not proud of that. Such attacks are too commonplace today. I for one am almost numb to them. The collapse of Notre-Dame, caused likely by a technological malfunction or oversight rather than by act of human hatred and violence, strikes deeply, I think, because it is a sign of the times.
There are things, dear to us all, once as solid as a mountain, that are collapsing.
There are experiences coming at us that make us feel powerless.
There are images swirling in our heads that make us feel terribly vulnerable.
Alongside the story of our times, comes another story of collapse, powerlessness, and vulnerability—
—the story of Jesus, the strong and courageous healer of the sick and dying, who in the end becomes so terribly fragile and vulnerable…
—Jesus, revolutionary and reformer in whom the ordinary people placed their hope for a better world, who in the end becomes apparently powerless against the Empire…
—Jesus, God’s advocate of the poor, excluded, and forgotten, who in the end is crucified, dead, and buried…
It feels as if Saint Paul in today’s reading was either wrong or terribly naive—“Death does have the victory; death does sting.”
It must have felt that way to the followers of Jesus on that first Easter long ago.
Mary Magdalene went to the tomb that first Easter morning feeling like it was the end of the world—that her dreams for a better life were always just that, dreams; that shame would tell her always that she was a fool for having dared to believe she was more than what others made her out to be; that people she loved would only die, or leave, or betray her in the end; that she was powerless and vulnerable against the forces of the tyranny, greed, and violence of a male-dominated, power-hungry world.
These were the stories that stalked her soul—and for good reason. Collapse, powerlessness, and vulnerability—loss, death, betrayal, and abuse—these were things she knew all too well.
But there was another story rising around her in the darkness of that first Easter morning—one she could not yet see or trust. It was a new story rising out of of the darkness, out of the collapse, powerlessness, and vulnerability—rising up against her doubts and fears, shame and despair.
What was rising around and within her—though she could not yet see or trust it—was the counter-narrative, the alternative story around which the entire cosmos turns—the truth that it is out of collapse, out of powerlessness, out of vulnerability that new life comes. Always. This fact is as true for human life as it is for the giant sequoia that rises from the tiny seed propagated only by fire. It’s as true for your life and mine as it is for a planet born from a dying star.
This is the story of Easter—
—that life comes from death; that the future rises from our failures; that wholeness comes from our brokenness; that vulnerability and fear, shame and doubt are not weakness. No, this is the strong stuff, the humus, from which new life always comes…
—Jesus rises in the dark of night. A planet is born from a dying star. A sequoia rises from the scorched forest floor where a single cone, broken open by extreme heat, drops a seed into the humus of the earth, and there countless dead things conspire to give birth to life…
—Out of vulnerability. Out of powerlessness. Out of collapse—life rises always. Inevitably. Irrepressibly. Irresistibly. Life always rises…
On a recent trip to the border—there, to practice solidarity with those fleeing violence, poverty, and despair in the hope of a new and better life—a Central American spoke the best and simplest definition of Easter I think I’ve ever heard. It’s a common saying south of the border. And for good reason. It’s spoken against cartels, gangs, the environmental disaster of climate change on poor farmers, and against repressive governments on both sides of the border. And we in the north would do well to learn it—if we wish not merely to survive the age, but to thrive.
She spoke of the key to human resilience, the ground from which unstoppable courage, even revolution can rise.
With the quiet determination of a soul that knows what Easter knows, this young woman of irrepressible courage said: “They tried to bury us; they didn’t know we were seeds.”
We are all seeds and in us is a force of life that cannot, indeed, will not be conquered—ever.
So, don’t run from the struggle of life.
When you fall—and you will—get back up.
When you’re afraid and falter, keep going.
You are seeds, all of you.
We are seeds, all of us—together. You notice that she didn’t say, “They tried to bury me.” She said, “They tried to bury us; they didn’t know we were seeds.” We rise together, in relationship, in community…ever alone…but together—filled with the irrepressible power of love that alway seeks life, each of us an audacious seed that can’t help but press up from the earth—buried, yes, but in Christ, indomitable, revolutionary, and free!