In the early 400s, a Christian writer described a relic in Jerusalem believed to be the crown of thorns imposed on Jesus’ head before his crucifixion. Whether this relic was genuine, or what anyone said about it earlier than that I don’t know. It was certainly believed to be the real thing.
In the 11th century, the crown of thorns was moved from Jerusalem to Byzantium, the old eastern part of the Roman Empire. Two hundred years later the Byzantine emperor used the crown of thorns as collateral for a loan from the city of Venice. Since the Byzantine Empire was falling apart at the time, the emperors couldn’t make the payments. So the crown was redeemed by the King of France. He brought it to Paris, where it was housed in the church of Sainte-Chappelle until the French Revolution in 1789. The revolutionary government moved the crown to the National Library, where it stayed until the middle of the 19th century, when it was given a new home in a relic chapel of the city’s newly-renovated cathedral, Notre-Dame de Paris.
On Monday [April 15, 2019] the world watched this astonishing piece of artistic and engineering mastery, fused with centuries of profound religious devotion, go up in flames. Those people especially committed to the religious significance of the place worried about the crown--would it, too, be lost in the flames along with the irreplaceable woodwork and the Gothic-style spire.
But the priest who serves as chaplain of the Paris firefighters, Father Jean-Marc Fournier, rushed in and rescued the crown of thorns and the consecrated Sacrament--the body of Christ--from the flames. The irreplaceable treasures of the cathedral were passed hand to hand, out of the burning structure to safety.
Everything dies. People die, of course. Their heart ruptures or fails. Cancer cells take over their body. They suffer head trauma from a car crash or they overdose, they’re shot or starved or they hang on a cross until their legs can’t hold their chest up and they suffocate. But not just people. Books die. Ideas die. Whole nations and empires and systems of law and government die. The Byzantine Empire died. The Roman Empire died. They all do, eventually.
Even buildings die. They die in earthquakes and floods, they die of neglect or hostility, they get replaced. They burn. Even places as stunning and timeless as Notre Dame, whose artisans laid the cornerstone a hundred years before the towers were completed. Work done by workers who knew they would die long before their work was complete. Those buildings die.
Everything dies. And yet nothing is ever finished. If you’ve been to Europe and seen the old churches you know that they exist in layers. The bottom is from the 10th century, the walls from the 14th, the roof is new, only 200 years old. And they are always being rebuilt because they’re always falling down. They’re always dying.
Everything dies but we try to save what we can. We try every treatment, we spend the last dollar, we fight past hope.
Everything is falling down, but we try to preserve it, to build back, to add our own layer, to add our own wall to the project that is never finished. We pass what we love along, hand to hand, in a great chain whose links all die before the treasure ever reaches safety.
Everything dies, but a fire chaplain can run into a burning cathedral to rescue an ancient relic and the true Body of Christ.
Everything dies, but Peter can draw his sword and strike off the ear of the high priest’s slave. Everything dies, but the king’s followers--if there are enough of them, if they have the heart for it--can storm the palace and rescue the imprisoned king.
St. Augustine, writing sixteen centuries ago about the Roman Empire, said that in the beginning the gods protected the city of Rome, but in the end the city was protecting the gods. He meant this as a criticism. It refuted pagan religion, which worshiped gods precisely because they had the power to protect their city.
But there’s something beautiful about it, too. What kind of a person would not rush into a burning building to save the body of his savior? Who would Peter have been if he had not drawn his sword in defense of his friend, even when the odds were hopeless? Who would we be if we did not risk ourselves to save that thing that can never be saved: the life of another? Who would we be if we did not strive to add our part to the work that is never finished?
That’s what it means to be human. If we’re good at it, we’ll protect what we love, even if it is hopeless to do so. We will strive to finish the work that can never be finished.
This is the day that Jesus died. The people who loved him tried to prevent it, or fled, or denied him to save themselves and suffered for it. But it was all no use. He was captured, put on trial, beaten, mocked, made up with a crown of torture and a robe of ridicule. He was hung on a piece of wood until he asphyxiated.
And yet in the midst of friends who tried and failed to love him as humans love, in the midst of enemies who cursed and abused him as humans do, Jesus is the one offering protection. Jesus gives his blessed mother to the care of his disciple. Jesus looks on Peter with grief and love. Jesus does not answer the taunts and the violence. Jesu would rather suffer all things, bear every taunt and curse, absorb every blow than harm the hair on one human head. Jesus does not need to be protected. He needs no vengeful army of followers and no host of angels. Jesus is the one who protects until the end.
And in the midst of a world whose work is never complete, where nothing made by human hands is ever finished, Jesus finishes the work of salvation. “It is finished,” he says, and dies. No one else will ever suffer to fulfill God’s righteousness. No one else will ever die to redeem humanity. No one will ever add one jewel to his crown. Time breaks down every wall and we build back what we love. But salvation is finished forever.
In the days after the fire, it turned out that the chaplain, Father Fournier, had not merely rescued the sacrament. He had held up the Body of Christ, and in the custom of the Roman Church, said the benediction over the five hundred firefighters and the burning cathedral. Jesus blessed and protected them even as the building burned.
In the end, we do not protect Jesus. He protects us. In flame and destruction, he would rather be consumed than lose any of his own. In this world where everything dies and nothing lasts and nothing is ever finished, only the crown of thorns can be the royal crown of triumph. Only the lost and abandoned Savior can rescue his city. Only the one who stands amid flame and death can shed his grace on all who draw near. And only the work of divine love can ever be finished.