This week, I and millions of others watched with horror and disbelief as a sudden and catastrophic fire overwhelmed the cathedral of Notre-Dame. The world stopped as one of the greatest monuments of the church, of western civilization, of humanity, collapsed before our eyes. The historical import of the moment weighed heavily on me: something of enduring permanence was passing away, never to be truly replaced. Sure, we will rebuild, as the French president swiftly took to the airwaves to assure people. But deep down, all of us know that it won’t be the same. A replica is not the same as the original. A facsimile of transcendence is not the same thing as transcendence.
To be honest, I was a bit surprised by my own emotional reaction to the fire. Unlike its 13 million annual visitors, I have never been to Notre-Dame. I’m not Catholic, so I have no personal vested interest here. I believe that Jesus’ church is built of people, not stones and glass and gold. No one died in this disaster. The closest connection I have to the cathedral is Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
And yet tears filled my eyes as I watched the spire collapse and fire fill the stained glass windows. Why? What is it about the destruction of enduring beauty that prompts such an emotional response? Why did the whole world grieve?
A day after the fire, I read a French proverb that lays bare both the tragedy and our response:
Tout passe, tout casse, tout lasse.
Everything passes. Everything breaks. Everything is weary.
“Everything breaks, everything is weary.” We know this is inescapably true; the reality is all around us, from crumbling cathedrals to the wrinkles in the mirror. And yet, though this universe of entropy and decay is the only world we’ve ever known, our hearts are restless and raging. We protest against the slow breaking of everything, we shut our eyes to the ravages of time, we grieve our losses and partings. We pour ourselves into magnificent monuments and assure ourselves that they will last forever, only to be shocked when they succumb to the inevitable. It’s as if the deepest part of our heart refuses to accept the world the way it is, and beats its fists against the iron cage of mortality and futility.
The book of Romans diagnoses this condition:
“The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:19-23)
All creation groans, Paul says, straining against the iron bands of the curse. The natural order itself longs for “the revealing of the sons of God,” for the children of the King to rise with a glorious freedom that pulls the entire groaning world out of its grave. And not only the creation, Paul writes; we too, even those of us with the first flickers of the new creation warming the ashes of our hearts, groan against the tyranny of time and entropy. Like the elves of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, we fight the “long defeat” against the fading futility of a fallen world, aching for the undying lands for which we were made. We are immortals shackled to a dying world. Everything passes, everything breaks, everything is weary. And we long for resurrection.
For a few hours on Monday, the entire world watched as Notre Dame burned, and the collective longing of humanity was exposed. It’s true: “Tout passe, tout casse, tout lasse.” But Good Friday and Easter remind us of the truth which the empty tomb proclaims and all creation anticipates: