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Notre Dame’s shock soothed by rescued relics. What commemorates your faith?

What could assuage the shock of seeing the Notre Dame Cathedral Paris amid roaring, uncontrollable flames?

Raging devastation paralyzed the faithful few who worshipped there. Even the secular touring public, for whom Notre Dame’s flying buttresses, Gothic-era gargoyles, and gorgeous rose windows are a Parisian must-see, stood transfixed as the catastrophe unfolded.

Before the inferno claimed the roof of the 800 year-old international landmark, a priest, part of a human chain, rescued the sacraments, and the relics, including to the relief of so many—one Crown of Thorns.

Chain, Chain, Chain

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Yes, that Crown of Thorns. By way of quick background, here is what legal evidentiary practice calls the “chain of custody”:

• The “Crown” appears in the Bible’s, account of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. It was placed upon the brow of Jesus as He is mocked for claiming to be the son of God. He was derided for being “The King of the Jews.”  Matthew 27:29, Mark 15:17, John 19:2. John 19:5 indicates: “Then came Jesus forth, wearing the crown of thorns, and the purple robe. And Pilate saith unto them, Behold the man!”
• The loss and subsequent absence of important evidence for 400 years would surely render the evidence problematic in a court of law, yet in this case some people believe the crown of thorns  resurfaced by 409 A.D.
• From there, according to the Catholic newspaper The Compass, the Crown’s whereabout are traceable, and “can be unbrokenly traced back only to Constantinople, where many of the church’s treasures originally in Jerusalem were transferred to the Byzantine Empire between the fourth and the tenth centuries.”
• In a humiliating episode, the relic was pawned, in a sense, by the Latin Emperor Baldwin II to raise funds in 1238.
• Shortly thereafter that King Louis IX of France paid the Venetian bank holding the relic, and claimed it for France. Because the monarch claimed it and other relics, then in humble celebration, is said to have walked barefoot and in a simple tunic behind the crown into the then Sainte-Chapelle, the Catholic church canonized him. Incidentally, Louis’ tunic is one of the relics saved in Monday’s fire.
• The Crown of Thorns survived the French Revolution, hidden away in the National Library for safekeeping. Even though the bloody conflict ended with the fall of the pope in 1798, by 1801, Napoleon Bonaparte I executed a treaty with the Catholic Church, returning the “Passion relics” to its custody at Notre Dame.
• The Crown of Thorns has been at Notre Dame since, offered for worshippers on the first Friday of every month, and each Friday during Lent, until it was saved from the fire on Monday by Jean-Marc Fournier, a priest.

Money Where Your Mouth Is

Social elites, wealthy business owners, and concerned parishioners around the world chipped in to rebuild the Cathedral—growing its pre-fire $6 Million renovation budget to $1 Billion after the fire. And, this feat of reconstruction will be completed in five years, according to the optimistic French President, Emmanuel Macron. But, now just two days away from the day that Christians around the world commemorate the Resurrection of Jesus, this event highlights the power of a relic over real religion, especially as some see money diverted from human suffering to religious architecture.

Human intervention is what turns an ordinary inanimate object into an artifact, said Alfred Williams, Jr., Ph.D., a Paine College professor of Religion and Philosophy, an expert in biblical archeology. Throughout the centuries, religious relics emerge as a result of the subjective religious meaning and value attached to them. And, it is unlikely, that the objects revered were at all considered to be worthy of such at the time of their creation or use. Hence, Roman soldiers and Pilate certainly would not have viewed a crown of thorns as holy, or valuable. Their intentions were just the opposite.

Centuries past the Age of Enlightenment, and well into our post-modern world, tangible evidence and visible revelation is critical to the faith of many believers.

“Faith has become a lot more challenging to have” said Williams. “We seem to desperately need something. Faith should be enough, [but] humans seem to want to have something to hang onto. What is more important, rather than the relic itself, is your belief and your faith. At the end of the day, a relic doesn’t mean very much, but your faith is everything.”

Formal Fascination

In France, at least, a fascination with form rather than actual function of faith seems consistent with the findings of Pew research released in December 2018. Pew examined religious practices across Europe, ranking European countries according to the self-reported experiences of adherents. In a list of 34 countries, France ranked 26, with only 12% of its population identifying themselves as “highly religious.” To be “highly religious” was defined as “attending religious services at least monthly, praying at least daily, believing in God with absolute certainty and saying that religion is very important to them.”

Maybe they need to feel close to an artifact. And, they are not the only ones, Williams concedes. It is very human to be struck with inspiration at an object that ties us to our faith. So, what about us? The question is, what assuages our faith as we watch the world on fire, the rolling catastrophes of each news cycle, and our sense of powerlessness in the reflection of it all?

The Bible points us to three events for commemoration, (see this article from our Vault by the late evangelist Earl E. Cleveland) all of which, upon reflection, have the power to usher us directly into the revelation of God’s glory and grace: 1. Communion. 2. The Resurrection, and 3. The Sabbath.

Why not meet Jesus there, at the scene of His prayers for you in Gethsemane? Meet Him who endured the crown of thorns, not in veneration, but in humiliation. Meet Him who rose again with all power, and came looking for you and me. Meet Him, whose passion for your will last for eternity.

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