Following the King, even into the flames

2 mins read
A reliquary containing what tradition holds is Jesus' crown of thorns is displayed during a ceremony at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris March 21, 2014. A major blaze engulfed the iconic cathedral April 15, 2019, sending pillars of flame and billowing smoke over the center of the French capital. (CNS photo/Philippe Wojazer, Reuters)

Lent, beginning on Feb. 14, Ash Wednesday, has been important for Christians at least for 21 centuries. St. Irenaeus, who died in 203 A.D., wrote to Pope St. Victor I, the Church’s chief pastor from 189 A.D. until his death in 199 A.D., about Christians who prepared themselves for Easter by concentrating upon the Lord, by praying and by fasting for 40 days.

Ancient Christians wanted to know Christ, to imitate Christ, to feel the presence of Christ in themselves and, most of all, to understand better what the Lord’s sacrificial death on Calvary meant for them and for the world.

Believing that, as Christians, they had a mission, they also realized that they were only humans, easily distracted or confused, uncertain in the face of difficulties, afraid of the future.

Christ was the best example to follow. He prayed and fasted for 40 days and nights before beginning his public ministry (cf. Mt 4, Mk 1, Lk 4).

Again, this year, the Church’s rich liturgy and pious customs provide help for us to engage in the same process, so that we may solidify our personal bond with Christ, causing, in ourselves, and in others, the saving works of Christ to live again.

A crown imperiled

On April 15, 2019, fire suddenly engulfed the roof of the great, historic cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris in the French capital. It was feared that the fire might weaken the basic structure of the thousand-year-old church, bringing down the entire building.

A priest raced into the church, dodged the flames, and retrieved the Blessed Sacrament from the tabernacle, because he believed that the Lord lives, really and truly, in the Eucharist, the holy food that sustains the faithful.

Also in the cathedral was the crown of thorns, the circlet placed on the Lord’s head by Roman soldiers to mock Jesus, sentenced to die for claiming to be the king of the Jews (cf. Mt 27:29, Mk 15:17-18, Jn 19:3, 5).

Is this object genuine? Nothing, so far, disproves its authenticity. This is its background: Devoted followers of Jesus lovingly preserved items connected with the crucifixion, including the crown of thorns. Time passed. The crown went into the hands of the Christian Byzantine emperor, who ruled the Holy Land. In 1238, Emperor Baldwin II, gave the crown to the French king, St. Louis IX, for whom, coincidentally, St. Louis, Missouri, is named. St. Louis took it home to France, where for several centuries it has been the treasure of Notre Dame cathedral.

As the fire raged, a priest demanded to enter the cathedral to rescue the crown. Firefighters denied permission. Too dangerous. He insisted. Several volunteered to join him, knowing the risk, but unwilling to watch the crown’s destruction.

Making a large umbrella of steel plates to protect themselves from burning, falling debris, into the cathedral they went. Maneuvering through thick, choking, blinding smoke, they found the safe containing the crown.

A prayer answered

To safeguard the crown, authorities had equipped the safe with a state-of-the-art combination lock. Great when it worked, it was no good without electricity. The fire interrupted the supply of electricity. The lock held fast.

Trusting God, admitting their helplessness and, most of all, revering the crucifixion and the crown’s connection with it, they all knelt beneath the steel umbrella and prayed. Then the priest rose. He entered the combination. It worked! He retrieved the crown and, escorted by the firefighters, carried it to safety.

French President Emmanuel Macron himself invited Pope Francis to re-open the fully restored cathedral on Dec. 8, 2024, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Central to the event will be returning the crown of thorns to its historic place of honor.

Lent exists for us. Face facts: We can lose focus and energy. Lent enlightens and strengthens us, turning us to Jesus, our redeemer, our model and our guide to true life. 

Msgr. Owen F. Campion

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.