Seven Last Words for Modernity
Preserving the Sanctity of Our History
Holy Week this year was bookended by two tragedies, the burning of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and the martyrdom of at least 290 Christian worshipers at Easter Mass in Sri Lanka. These are only the most prominent of the many tragedies afflicting our world, but they are all the more prominent for taking place during this week of joy.
Who can deny that our world is sick? Environmental collapse, economic decline, moral degeneration, political dysfunction, and inexorable social disintegration all fuel a widespread sense of despair. By next year, two-thirds of the world’s wildlife (from a baseline of 1970, itself no untouched Eden) will have died. Since 2016 alone, half of the Great Barrier Reef has died from the ocean becoming too hot to support the algae needed to feed it. In America, the wealthiest 1% of the country has more wealth than the bottom 90% combined. Marriage rates have steadily declined for half a century. Deaths outnumber births in one-third of American counties, and this state of affairs is consistent across the developed world. Life expectancy in America has steadily declined for the last three years, driven by drug overdoses and suicide, which have acquired the sobriquet of “deaths of despair.” This figure would surely be higher if not for the fact that antidepressant prescriptions have jumped 65% in the last 15 years. Although hopefully none of us are nailed to a cross, it is impossible not to sympathize with Jesus when he “cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Matthew 27:46)
However, this is only one of the seven sayings of Christ on the Cross. The first was “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) We must forgive others for what they do to us, and ourselves for what we have done to ourselves, because to not do so is to wallow in hatred, bitterness, and regret.
The second was “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43) The pains of this world are temporary, and the joy of the beatific vision lies in our future if only we trust in Christ. The martyrs of Sri Lanka are today in Paradise. Death triumphed over neither Christ nor them. We should not allow it to triumph over us.
“[Jesus] said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold your son’. Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold your mother’.” (John 19:26-27) We must take care of each other as family members, for we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. If all you can give are your prayers, then give your prayers. If all Father Jenkins can afford to give for the rebuilding of our namesake is $100,000, then that is perfectly fine. The fourth saying I have described above.
His fifth saying was “I thirst” (John 19:28). Upon his request for help, the Roman soldiers guarding him gave him vinegar to drink. This impulse has not departed the world today. The French have announced an architectural competition to replace the fallen spire on Notre Dame Cathedral, and monstrous designs are springing from the minds of architects like maggots from a piece of roadkill. We must not despair at the power of evildoers, but rather seek to save what we can. We saw this spirit exemplified this week by Father Jean-Marc Fournier, who rushed into the flames of Notre Dame Cathedral to save the Blessed Sacrament and the Crown of Thorns from the flames.
John 19:30 states that “Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’” This is commonly believed to refer to the end of his mission on Earth. We know neither the day nor the hour Christ will return, so we must stay vigilant. Before it burned down, Notre Dame Cathedral had been reduced to a tourist attraction. Single-digit percentages of French Catholics attended Mass weekly. Whether this situation will improve I know not. Westerners attend Mass as infrequently as possible then act outraged when the symbol of a nation’s faith smolders, while in Sri Lanka the churches are packed, with the congregants in full knowledge that this makes them an ever-more tempting target for suicide bombers, but they come anyway from love of Christ.
The final words of Jesus on the Cross were “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:46) We need to trust in God’s providence that all will turn out for the best. He has promised that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church, and although the faith may disappear in some regions (Saint Augustine was the Bishop of Hippo, a seat which has been vacant for centuries), it will never fully be lost. We can only do our best to live out our lives in service to God, and hope that it will all be all right.
It took a century to build the Cathedral of Notre Dame, a period rather on the short side of the great cathedrals of the Old World. Cologne Cathedral, for instance, was begun in 1248 but not completed until 1880. Even with modern building techniques, La Sagrada Familia in Spain begun more than a century ago is not yet complete. If it should take that long to restore Notre Dame and the Church in France, we should pray that God will judge us worthy of that task. In its two millennia of existence, the Church has gone through many struggles and tribulations. Our forebears did not lose hope, and passed on the faith to our generation. We owe the same to posterity.
David is a junior studying history, with minors in Computing & Digital Technologies and Business Economics. All of his spare time goes towards playing the trumpet in marching band.