Seminary Viewpoints

Our Lady of Paris: Self-Worship Through the Ages

April 24, 2019
Viewpoint Blog

The recent fire at Paris’s Notre Dame cathedral has captured the attention and drawn out the emotions of people the world over. Especially against this background, we are grateful for Christians in France who are spreading the gospel in a place that is unusually difficult spiritually. BJU Seminary graduate Tim Bixby grew up in France as a “missionary kid.” He now serves there as a missionary himself, planting a church in the northern Paris suburb of Sarcelles. We’ve asked Tim to share some reflections on the Notre Dame incident. Below he shows how the history of the cathedral is a microcosm of the religious history of France and a window into the country’s spiritual landscape.

A Striking Turn of Events

On the night of April 15, 2019, after seeing my four oldest children to bed and leaving them under the care of their grandmother, I got in my car to drive twenty-five minutes north to the city of Senlis, where Hugh Capet, the first of the Capetian kings of France was crowned in 987. I was headed to visit my wife and my newborn son, who was being cared for in the NICU of the city hospital.

On a clear night, we can see the searchlight of the Eiffel Tower from our bedroom window, and just up the road from our house we have a pretty good view of the Parisian skyline. I stopped my car, wondering if I could see the smoke from the Notre Dame cathedral that was still burning. My eyes were disappointed, but a live interview on the national news radio caught my ear. The “Great Rabbi of France” (a position created by Napoleon and which still exists today) was being asked for his reaction to the fire. He reminded the listeners that this was the week that Christians would be celebrating Easter—the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ—and that he was convinced that the cathedral would be “resurrected.” He then shared his most emotionally moving memory of the cathedral: an ecumenical prayer service in which he had participated.

The following day, the headlines announced another surprise: monetary gifts, large and small, were pouring in from all over the country and the world. Within twelve hours after the fire, more than 800 million Euros had been pledged! There was certainly—and the media here in France picked up on this—a desire for brand recognition and effective advertisement among French companies and wealthy families vying to out-give each other. After all, a large one-time gift for the rebuilding of the Notre Dame would be less expensive yet potentially as effective as having one’s logo on the shirts of a soccer team.

Nevertheless, the cathedral fire had struck a deep chord in the hearts of many. People were moved in ways they had not been only two months earlier when ten people were burned to death in an apartment fire in the same city. Not one person died in the Notre Dame fire. Yet, to use the words of the French president, “part of us” was burned.

A Center of Worship?

The “Our Lady of Paris,” which is what its name means in English, does indeed serve as a major tribute to the history and the people of France. The medieval Catholic cathedral on the Île de la Cité—an island in the middle of the Seine—was consecrated to the Virgin Mary and is considered to be one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture. Its construction, begun in 1160, reflected the values of the France of the time. The highest point in the city was not a tower constructed by a secular engineer for a world fair (as in 1889) but a Christian cathedral presided over by a bishop and conceived as a center of worship to the One True God.

As France’s dogged resistance to the Protestant Reformation sadly demonstrated, however, the “worship” given in the cathedral was not a worship offered up in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). Rather, the worship practiced in this place was but a man-centered, man-exalting display of human innovation. From its very inception, the famed cathedral was much more about “our lady” and “our city” than about “our God.” But it was nonetheless intended to be a place of worship to God. Then France changed . . . and the cathedral became a tool used to serve different ends.

A Shrine to Reason

During the French revolution, the “cult of reason” became “France’s first established state-sponsored atheistic religion.” The Roman Church was banned, and the first official Fête de la Raison (Festival of Reason) was held on November 10, 1793, in “the former cathedral of Notre Dame.” The altar intended for the worship of God was removed and another altar “to Liberty,” on which was ignited a flame meant to symbolize Truth, was installed. The words “To Philosophy” were carved in stone over the cathedral’s doors.

“Our Lady of Paris” had received a facelift to reflect the changing times. Though the cult encouraged devotional displays of adoration to the “ideal of Reason,” the worship remained explicitly anthropocentric. One of its major proponents, Antoine-François Momoro, clarified: “Liberty, reason, and truth are only abstract beings. They are not gods, for properly speaking, they are part of ourselves.” Our Lady of Paris had become a shrine to worship a part of ourselves. But then France changed again . . . and the cathedral was transformed to serve yet other ends.

Change after Change

On Sunday December 2, 1804, Napoleon I was crowned Emperor of the French. What better place for such an event than the Cathedral of Notre Dame? The ceremony was an odd mix of old and innovative elements, with a blend of Roman and French traditions. It consisted of two parts held at two ends of the cathedral to deliberately contrast its religious and secular aspects. The cults of the French Revolution were banned, and a French version of Catholicism was restored. Our Lady of Paris had changed her garb again. But then France changed again . . . as did the uses of her famed cathedral.

Space doesn’t allow a review of how the cathedral was used by the restored monarchy, the second empire, and the five different republics of France. By the law of December 9, 1905, the French government officially divorced the Church of Rome. The separation of church and state that this law established is still in effect today. But with the divorce came an interesting division of property. The state kept for itself all the buildings constructed before that date, stating that all buildings constructed thereafter would belong to their religious organizations.

What this means is that the Notre Dame Cathedral belongs today to the secular French government. Though the Vatican could easily pay for the entire renovation of this historically Roman Catholic cathedral, it has no obligation to pay a cent! The upkeep of this religious edifice is the sole responsibility of a secular state. This fact is fitting in one sense since Notre Dame vies today for the title of the most visited tourist attraction in France. Our Lady of Paris serves as one of several magnets attracting people from all over the world to the city.

All about Us

But to gawk is not to worship. The political leaders interviewed on national media have reminded us ad nauseam that Notre Dame is not just for the Catholics, not just for people of faith, but for all of the French, for all of Europe, and for all of the world. In other words, the Cathedral of Our Lady is all about us. Our Lady has again been reclothed.

One could argue that President Macron’s reasoning parallels Momoro’s cited above. During the French revolution, Momoro claimed that we should worship Liberty, Reason, and Truth, not because they were gods in and of themselves, but because “they are part of ourselves.” President Macron claimed that the tragedy of the fire—and thus the value of the cathedral—resided in the fact that the cathedral is “part of us.”

It should not surprise us that modern-day man is willing to invest millions of Euros in a religious edifice that he considers to be a tribute to his own history, ingenuity, creativity and even devotion—for modern man still considers devotion to be a laudable quality within himself. In doing so, he resembles his forefathers who banded together at Babel or who shouted in unison for hours in Ephesus.

The Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris has stood for nearly 1,000 years. Given the building’s historical and cultural significance, her partial destruction is indeed a great tragedy. But what ideology does the structure represent? Notre Dame has witnessed innumerable acts of devotion from her first dedication to the Virgin Mary to the ecumenical prayer services of the twenty-first century with the participation of Muslim clerics and Jewish rabbis. Yet one constant can be found in her name. She is “Our Lady of Paris.” She is ours. She is part of us. We have made and remade her in our image. If she lies in ashes, we will of ourselves resurrect her to greater glory, for she stands as a monument to our man-made glory.

So do not be surprised to see a ferociously secular state, a Roman church, and private profit-driven businesses unite around a common cause. The cause is “us.” Notre Dame will be rebuilt because she is “la Nôtre.”

Responding to a Disaster

Tim Bixby provides a thought-provoking, on-the-ground perspective on the Notre Dame fire. His essay reflects some of the challenges believers face in striving to evangelize France and similar European countries. Daily they are confronted by the bald self-orientation of secularism as well as the slightly more subtle self-righteousness of various religions. Our brothers and sisters stand in need of our prayers for wisdom and strength as they proclaim the humbling yet glorious gospel of grace in this context.

There is another way to help, though Tim did not ask us to say this. While donors have now reportedly given or pledged a billion dollars to rebuild the Notre Dame cathedral, another building program is going on about twenty kilometers to the north. Recently the Lord enabled the Sarcelles church plant to move into its own facility after a remarkable series of twists and turns. Over the next three years this fledgling group of believers needs to raise around 600,000 Euros to finish paying for the building. No offense to the architectural importance of Notre Dame, but this edifice is considerably more significant for the good of the French people! If you would like to contribute to this worthy effort, click here and designate a gift for the “Sarcelles Building Fund.”

Finally, Tim’s observations about Notre Dame urge us all to evaluate our mentality in worship. May we make sure that our worship is truly directed to God and in keeping with his Word rather than oriented to ourselves and shaped according to our imaginations. Our gracious Lord deserves nothing less!