It is a pleasure and real honor to be back here at my home parish as a priest. I have been a priest for eleven years, and it is a wonderful joy to celebrate the sacraments. As I have been watching the news this last week about the burning of Notre Dame, I have realized everyone’s eyes have been transfixed to this. People are calling it a tragedy, yet no lives have been injured. No one has been hurt, but there is still something tragic about this cathedral in flames.
There is a powerful article in The Smithsonian, and I want to read a paragraph from that.
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame is now again on the top seller list in the wake of this week’s disaster and it is fitting not only because the novel is centered around the cathedral, but also because it was written at an earlier time when Notre Dame was in crisis. Construction began in 1163 and was only completed in 1345. But, early in the nineteenth century when Hugo wrote this novel, this grandiose structure was in a pretty bad state. Ill-advised renovations during the reign of Louis XIV saw stained glass windows moved in favor of clear windows. The pillar was actually demolished to make way for carriages and an ornate partition was removed. Then came the French Revolution. Viewed as a symbol of the church and monarchy, Notre Dame was ransacked by the revolutionaries who beheaded the statues, stripped lead from the roof to make bullets and melted down bronze bells to make canons. The cathedral was then returned to the Catholic Church in 1802, but no one was fully invested in attending to it. The building’s Gothic architecture had given way to the Renaissance. By then, the Parisians considered medieval buildings to be vulgar, deformed monstrosities. Victor Hugo disagreed, so he wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame when it was still in its glory days looking back to that. He took the opportunity to lament how this beautiful church had declined. Hugo said, ‘It is difficult not to sigh, not to act indignant before the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have both caused to the venerable monument to suffer.”
Cathedrals are a tangible presence of God’s glory. They are a sacred place where heaven and earth meet. In some ways, this could be an image of our church today. Our church is suffering. Our church has been scandalized. The priesthood has been scandalized. Sometimes, we often look at it and see it as unrecognizable. But, just as Notre Dame will continue to be built up, so will the church continue to be built up.
In today’s liturgy, at the very end, the altar will be stripped. The Blessed Sacrament will be removed. The statues will be covered, and we will experience something of the barren cathedral. But it does not end there because it is only the beginning. The entrance into the Passion. Victor Hugo would go on to write about Quasimodo, the hunchback.
I just want to quote one of his lines: “He found solace in this cathedral that everybody else scorned.” The cathedral was enough for him. It was peopled with marbled figures of kings, saints and bishops who at least did not laugh in his face, but instead, only looked at him with tranquility and benevolence.
The other statues, those of the monsters and demons, had no hatred for him. He resembled them too closely, so it was the rest of mankind that jeered him. The saints were his friends and blessed him. The monsters were his friends and kept watch over him. He would sometimes spend whole hours crouched before one of the statues in solitary conversation with it, and if anyone came upon him, he would run away like a lover surprised during a serenade.
In just a few moments, we celebrate the washing of the feet. During the time of Jesus, feet were considered, and still are today, the dirtiest part of the body. The part of the body that was most filthy, most deformed, and least likely to be looked at. It was to that very place that Jesus humbled himself. He goes right down to our feet. The feet are just symbolic for the lowest part of our soul. The lowest part of our being. The part of us that is filthy. The part of us that still remains in sin.
Jesus wants to wash us free from that sin, so he has given us this eternal gift of the priesthood and the Eucharist. No matter how bad things get, the priesthood and the Eucharist that were instituted 2000 years ago, will continue.
I know for me, some of my most privileged time as a priest is hearing peoples’ confessions and absolving them of their sins. I am sure many of us, during this season of Lent, have gone to this great sacrament and heard those words: “I absolve you of your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” It is out of that cleansing that we can come here to celebrate the Eucharist together. Christ is not afraid to go to our sin. Christ, like Quasimodo, does not pass this off. He loves us as we are, but he also desires to make us pure and clean.
In this Eucharist, we will reenact the foot washing where Jesus humbled himself by going to the lowest and filthiest part of us and washed us and made us clean to prepare us to receive the Eucharist, which will also happen today. We will receive this eternal banquet that Christ has prepared for us. During the foot washing and the preparation of the Eucharist, I encourage you to invite God into any place in your life where you still feel sinful, ugly or separated. That is the place he wants to go to. He desires nothing more than to humble himself and wash our feet.