“A one-eyed man is much more incomplete than a blind man,
for he knows what he’s lacking.”
Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, is set in 15th-century Paris. Quasimodo is the hunchbacked and horribly deformed bell ringer at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Quasimodo is beaten and pilloried by an angry mob for plotting the failed abduction of the beautiful street dancer Esmeralda. Esmeralda’s heart is as beautiful as her outward beauty. She takes pity on Quasimodo during his ordeal: she offers him a cup of water to comfort him. At that point, Quasimodo falls in love with her.
Monsignor Claude Frollo, the archdeacon of the cathedral and benefactor of Quasimodo, also fell in love with Esmeralda. When he discovered that Esmeralda had fallen in love with Captain Phoebus, the twisted archdeacon stabs the captain to death. He, then, accuses Esmeralda of the crime. In the cathedral, Quasimodo shelters Esmeralda from her accusers. Later he releases her to a group he thought was kindly disposed to her. But it was not; he, the recently crowned King of the Fools, was easily fooled. Esmeralda is subsequently hanged for the crime. In his grief and despair Quasimodo throws the archdeacon from the cathedral tower. The epilogue: two skeletons are found in Esmeralda’s tomb: that of a hunchback embracing a woman.
Victor Hugo wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame to illustrate a harsh reality we face in this life. We humans are capable of great genius, of great works of art like the Notre Dame Cathedral. We are capable of great religious and moral feats like those of St. Francis, Martin Luther, and Martin Luther King. But, we are also capable of profound ugliness. In the horizon of the beautiful Cathedral of Notre Dame people commit profound acts of ugliness. We are the one-eyed person who is worse off than the blind person, because we see our potential; yet, we fail. Like Esmeralda we are beautiful. Like the twisted Monsignor Frollo we are ugly with our hidden motivations, judgments, compulsions and contradictions between what we profess and what we do. Yet, our ugliness longs for beauty. Our ugliness calls out to the beauty of the Beautiful Savior. We see ugliness in the shadow of death, but we see beauty in the brilliance of life.
“He had no comeliness that we should desire him.” Those words come from the Book of Isaiah. We Christians identify Jesus as Isaiah’s suffering servant in his state of humiliation. The nadir of this humbled state is that there was no beauty about him. There was no beauty in his mangled and tortured body that hung on the cross. He was repulsive, one from whom people would rather hide their faces. His condemnation brought ugliness upon himself, his associates and his family. “Cursed is the person who hangs on a tree.”
In a theological sense, moreover, Jesus is most repulsive and ugly. “He who knew no sin became sin for us,” Paul says. Jesus took on our sin. He took on our failings. He took on our ugliness. Jesus, accordingly, suffered an ignominious death on the cross. His cross was not only his shame, or our shame by theological extension; it was also meant to shame the Jewish people. His death was not merely to be a deterrent to criminals; it was blatant bigotry against the whole Jewish people as Jesus was tagged “The King of Jews.” It was another imperial, Roman act of breaking the spirit of the Jewish people by suggesting they were inferior to the Romans. If their spirits were broken, then they were less likely to resist, to fight. Those who benefit from the exploitation of others must break their spirits. Racism and sexism, just to name two of many “isms,” have served as the underlying ideology to break the spirits of African Americans and women to keep them in their places for the economic benefit of others. The breaking of the spirits of others throughout human history is the ugliest aspect of life in the shadow of death.
Like all places that house the dead, the tomb of Jesus was also an ugly place. As humans, we are wont to whitewash tombs, beautify them to lessen the ugly, painful reality of death. For this reason cemeteries are well manicured. They occupy some of the most beautiful spaces in a given city. Yet, when you walk through a cemetery you are walking through a living oxymoron. The ugliness of death defies the beauty of burial places. There is no dressing up the ugly reality of death. Death is our ugly reality that drives us to cling to someone more beautiful than we, like the ugly Quasimodo clung to the beautiful Esmeralda.
On this Easter Sunday, the ugliness experienced in the shadow of death drives us to the beauty cascading from the brilliance of life. The Marys went to the tomb of Jesus to care for his body, but they found the tomb empty. There was no body. There was no dead body to venerate. A light not of this world pierced the tomb and reanimated the lifeless Jesus. The light of the Holy Spirit both reanimated his body and glorified it, giving it the powers to fill the necessary dimensions of life to keep his promises that where two or more are together in his name he is there, or when bread and wine are blessed with his performative word we participate in the mystical body of Christ that houses saints both in this life and the life to come. In Christ, they have real communion.
The empty tomb dazzles with life. The two angels don dazzling apparel. The whole scene is suffused with light. The light is the source of the beauty that alters the ugly scene of the tomb where the dead body of Jesus laid. The empty tomb wreaks of the abundant life that Jesus came to give us through his victory over sin, death and devil. Our experience of ugliness in the shadow of death drives us to the beauty of the brilliance of life. His death is our death; yet, his life is our life. “In him is life and his life is the light of the world.”
On Monday, April 15, 2019, did the burning of Notre Dame Cathedral trouble you? Though you may not have visited the Notre Dame Cathedral, you nevertheless know it. It is a part of the Paris skyline in movies. But, the Notre Dame Cathedral is more than an another building in the Paris skyline. It is the symbol of our faith. People of great faith built it and other great cathedrals around the world. People who loved Jesus and his mother created such beauty. The cathedral was to house the most beautiful things. The cathedral was in the center of the town. The cathedral bells marked the seasons, times and festivals. The cathedral was the symbol of interdependence and what great beauty humans together can accomplish. The beautiful cathedral was the product of faith in Christ Jesus.
The cathedral, moreover, was the place of worship and great learning. There was no contradiction between faith and reason at the cathedral. It was the place for quiet contemplation and profound spirituality. The cathedral brought together the First Space of beauty for the five senses. It brought together the Second Space of religious ideology and profound study for the head. It brought together the Third Space of contemplation and deep spirituality for the heart. Cathedrals were open 24-7 for personal prayer in a sacred place. The cathedral brought together the whole person: body, head and heart. This all begs the question: what institution is doing that today? What institution also places a moral imperative on us that we treat everyone in every generation with respect and love? What institution demands that we love our enemies and pray for those who spitefully abuse us? What institution continues to inculcate moral courage, though people fail to live up to the high standard? What institution demands that we respect all people at both ends of life? There is no institution like the church, cathedral, or Christians simply gathered around Word and Sacrament. To lose these will be to lose our soul in the West.
Truth be told, the cathedrals in Europe are empty. Soon, the churches in America will be empty. They have become museums. There is a fire that burned all of France long before the actual fire burned the Notre Dame Cathedral. It is the fire of anger that comes with prosperity and wealth. Never before have we in the West been more prosperous; yet, we are so angry. Prosperity and wealth have not made the West less angry, less anxious, less phobic about the challenges of the future. Because we have lost the center of our lives, we are angry and full of anxiety. There is no center in the West and the mercurial business of politics provides no lasting center. We no longer hear the bells.
Look what survived the fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral: the Pietá and the altar cross. They were not burned. There must be a metaphor there. What does it tell us? The love, kindness and mercy of God are forever. Churches, cathedrals and people come and go. The love, kindness and mercy of God are forever. If they are forever, why not, then, make them the center of your life now and already live an abundant life of peace, love and joy, which, according to our Resurrected
Lord, our Beautiful Savior, is a possibility now? To share in his resurrection is to take hold of this possibility of beauty in the brilliance of life and be raised up from the ugliness of the shadow of death. Such beauty is the transcendent food for which your soul yearns. No amount of money can satisfy this yearning, for it is a hunger from another world, another dimension of life. We are complex humans, accordingly. We live liminal lives between the shadow of death and the brilliance of life. Money and prosperity are not enough to negotiate this liminal space. The soul that follows a transcendent beauty into the light is not haunted by the ugliness of the shadow of death. It is already risen in Christ.