Today is Easter, the culmination of the Christian Holy Week.
For Frenchmen, this Easter week of 2019 will be remembered in a bleak way due to the freak fire that tore through the famous Notre Dame cathedral (translates to “Our Lady”).
It is among the most iconic buildings in Paris and one of the most celebrated cathedrals of Europe.
It is also among the top Paris landmarks, alongside the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and the Louvre museum. Notre Dame is a Gothic architectural masterpiece built in the Middle Ages.
That makes it several centuries older than St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, which was built in the Renaissance period, and in the distinctive Renaissance architectural style.
St Peter’s is where Pope Francis will preside today at the Easter papal High Mass, which is televised worldwide.
But not all Catholics – not many, even – know that the “seat” of the Pope is not St Peter’s but a smaller Roman church called St John Lateran, which is however ranked as an Archbasilica, the highest level of Roman Catholic cathedrals.
It is lesser known by pilgrims and tourists compared to the imposing pile within the Vatican City which claims Apostle Peter’s remains are buried under its altar.
Easter is the most important and holiest day in the Christian calendar. For the devout, it is not so much a time of merry-making as it is of re-stating their faith.
Easter marks the Resurrection, the ultimate pillar of Christianity – of Jesus rising from the dead and redeeming mankind from original sin.
Without the Resurrection, Christianity would not stand. Everything about the faith revolves around that central belief.
The Christian Gospels go easy on the key figure in Jesus’s death: Pilate.
The Governor of Roman-occupied Judea is depicted as a reluctant executioner who was being egged on by an unreasonable and bloodthirsty Jewish mob.
But the record later pieced together by 1st Century Jewish historian Josephus shows a ruthless and even cruel administrator who would not have hesitated to order Jesus’s killing at the slightest whim.
Christ’s rather showy entry into Jerusalem during the Passover feast, riding a donkey ahead of a cheering procession, and thereafter causing a commotion inside the Jewish Temple, plus his stony indifference when asked later if he was “King of the Jews”, all that would have been more than enough to provoke Pilate’s rage.
In fact, a decade later, the Governor was deposed by his Roman superior in the Syrian Province and ordered back to Rome to explain himself before the Emperor over the excessively brutal manner he put down a Samaritan disturbance in Judea.
Never be fooled: Jesus was wilfully executed by the Romans. Note that the standard Roman method of execution was crucifixion.
If the Jews had been left to execute him, they would have stoned him, as was their practice.
When the early Christians moved into the Gentile world in their mission to evangelise, their agenda was not to demonise the Roman empire but to make peace with it.
Thus the Gospel writers went out of their way to sanitise Romans like Pilate. Even, of all people, the Roman soldier in charge of Jesus’s execution, who according to one Christian fable was granted Jesus’s forgiveness and blessings at the moment of dying on the Cross.
Within a few centuries, Christianity was to take over Rome and from there swept across Europe.
It inspired the construction of great monuments like Notre Dame, Reims, Chartres, Rouen and Cologne cathedrals.
Many of these have at one time or another been destroyed in fires, wars or by just plain neglect but have later been painstakingly restored.
They usually contain priceless artworks and religious relics and have been marked as World Heritage Sites.
Within days of the Notre Dame fire, more than US$1 billion had poured in from private sources for the reconstruction of the cathedral.
A full half of that amount was pledged by three French billionaires, the rest by companies and ordinary French citizens.
The irony of this generosity has not gone unnoticed in a country where Christian observance, and especially Catholicism, has been in deep, irreversible decline.
One Parisian satirist explained matter-of-factly that for the big companies it was clever brand marketing through identifying with a national symbol. Cynics noted the billionaire donors stood to gain hefty tax reliefs.
Every country has its conspiracy theorists. Already there is a French fringe that believes Notre Dame was deliberately gutted, not accidentally by an electrical short circuit as experts say.
Why deliberately? If you believe the loonies, the “arson” was done to divert attention from the destructive “yellow vest” street protesters who have been tormenting President Emmanuel Macron’s government. A rather expensive way to divert attention, I would think.
An online acquaintance brings forth his own odd thought about the extended Easter weekend: that the person we should all thank for it is none other than Judas. To each his own.