taking the words of Jesus seriously

Bright orange flames gave way to billowing clouds of sooty gray smoke, rising high in the sky and nearly covering the setting sun in gay Paris; the arrondissements and boulevards and boulangeries looked skyward, this time not to the grand Tour Eiffel but instead to a national symbol of life and resurrection, covered in a swirling inferno.

Notre Dame was burning.

Notre Dame, our Lady, our monument, our relic, our symbol, our defeat.

Social media across America and across the world exploded with photos of tiny tourists, smiling in their white tennis shoes and bulging backpacks, dwarfed by the gigantic, centuries-old sanctuary behind them — a symbol of Western decadence and Christian victory.

It burned, flames licking the spires and brushing up against the formidable flying buttresses, on Monday of Holy Week, the Monday before Easter, a dark week in which Christians are called to walk with Jesus from ignominy and arrest to crucifixion and death — a long seven days until resurrection and an empty tomb on Easter Sunday.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 21, on Holy Monday an angry and rash Jesus storms into the Jerusalem temple and overturns the tables of the moneychangers.

“My house shall be called a house of prayer; but you are making it a den of thieves!”

He is not the Jesus with whom we are well-acquainted, the peaceful, vaguely Scandinavian looking white man with a well-groomed beard, who stares down at us from fireplace mantles with a thoughtful and placid expression on his face, arms outstretched, palms up, beseeching us.

No, the God of peace on Holy Monday became the Son of rage, wreaking havoc in a holy place because his words of truth exposed the cracking facade that made what had been corrupted still appear holy.

Notre Dame was burning.

Like the rest I winced and shuddered, forcing myself to view again and again the horrifying photos of a cathedral in flames, licking its spires and knocking down its height. It had once stretched to the heavens; now it was left exposed and naked to the sky, exposing us, too, for the times we did not pray in its pews, the times we Instagrammed its windows and stepped over its poor, naked, and hungry huddling in the doorsteps of the nearby cafes, too invisible to be seen by us.

I do not believe, necessarily, in a God who punishes with flame and flood, though we read of that God in the Bible. I believe instead that God wept too this Holy Monday, another relic in flames, another sanctuary destroyed, another holy place desecrated.

Still, perhaps we need a reminder of the desecration that has already burned its way through our churches and our hearts.

Holy Week has become unholy. The American government fights to detain those who have a “credible fear,” sentencing those fleeing violence and abuse to cold detention and virtual imprisonment inside the golden door that once tried to mean freedom, if only in theory, if only for those whose skin was pale and wallets were fat.

We await reports of our government’s war with itself, exposing hatred and lies and deceits that cross party lines and stretch from one end of the earth to another, never a limit to the places people will go to be wealthy and powerful, or, in tiny dark and dank computer labs on the other side of the world, to feed their families and pay their rent.

We celebrate as our Good News the tragic story of a man who had earned everything, broken barriers in a blood red mock turtleneck and overcome his own propensity to violence and unchastity and adultery, to become victorious again, and we celebrate his own aggrandizement but ignore the lasting scars on the son who hugged him, because winning erases a multitude of sins.

Just win, baby, has become our national motto.

America, America! You mock the prophets and deny those who are sent to you! How often God has desired to gather you to Herself, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.

Our Christian nation has been revealed for its utter un-Christianity, its utter selfishness and self-love, its zero-sum games and elevation of all that is outrageous, ignominious, and fleeting.

Still, it is only Wednesday.

Tomorrow Jesus gathers with his disciples, with you and with me — if we only see him — around our dinner tables humble and grand, breaking bread and giving thanks, laying himself before us and sacrificing himself so that true power might be seen in the humble, meek, and lowly.

This is my body, given for you.
This is my blood, shed for you and for all creation for the forgiveness of sins.
Do this in remembrance of me.

As we remember and restore the grand burning cathedral in the city of Love, this Unholy Week may we reclaim too what might become holy in us: a confession, a forgiveness of one another, a love that is costly and free all at once, a justice that will not be denied.

This article originally appeared on Angela’s blog.

About The Author

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Angela Denker is a Lutheran pastor and veteran journalist. She's written for many publications, including Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and Sojourners. Her book, "Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters who elected Donald Trump," is available for pre-order and launches Aug. 6 with Fortress Press.

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