It was Palm Sunday 2004, and my husband and I and our three children were on a tour of Paris, France. Our tour guide asked us if we would like to see the Dimanche des Rameaux” (Sunday of the Branches”) at the Cathedral de Notre Dame, a Holy week celebration of Jesus arrival in Jerusalem. Our kids, being huge Quasimodo fans, thanks to the 1996 Disney version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, were thrilled. My husband and I, while extremely excited, were still a bit unsure about putting our family in the middle of such a large gathering, only because the pain of 9/11 was still very fresh and we had already experienced a massive French military presence near our hotel and along the Champs-Elysees due to the state visit between Queen Elizabeth and French President Jacques Chirac. But children have a way of putting things in perspective and my little boys request, “I want to see QUAAAASIIMOOOO” sealed the deal.
Safety concerns aside, I silently hoped and prayed that some elfin creature would materialize from the bell tower of Notre Dame singing “Out There” or we were going to have some very disappointed children. I wondered if Jesus would help me out here.
Palm Sunday itself had started off in typical April in Paris fashion: gray and drizzly! But as our driver approached Notre Dame, the clouds broke to reveal a powder blue sky. The sun’s rays bouncing off the rose windows in the Cathedral tower reflected a kaleidoscope of colors onto the white robes of the clergy gathered on the steps below.
Our driver, could not find a place to park, dashing any hopes of us joining in palm procession, but he quickly zipped into a red curbed driveway and rolled down the windows.
“Prenez vite vos photos!” (Quick, take your pictures!).
I didn’t think twice and just started snapping pictures. Through my camera lens, I could see thousands of people, old and young, and somewhere in-between, locked arm in arm, standing in the shadow of this towering testament to gothic architecture and human survival. Palm branches were waving everywhere. I mean everywhere. With my ears, I could hear a cacophony of voices: some angelic sopranos, some altos, tenors and bass, some off-key, literally hundreds of languages singing what I later learned was a hymn called, “The Palm.” There were people who were not singing on the periphery of the crowds, but they were no less engaged. Most of them were smiling, their teeth white against a myriad of skin tones, their eyes raised to the heavens in joy, to admire the bell towers or possibly the spire atop, or maybe in hope that the wafting clouds might part further to reveal the Christ they had come to praise. Some were taking pictures like me. Others were silently holding hands with a loved one, or cuddling a small child.
I looked at my children, at my husband and gone were any thoughts of spying a Disney cartoon character. For, here was “faith”, not as a label, not even as a building as magnificent as Notre Dame, not as a theological doctrine or a set of rules that I struggled to follow, but rather “faith” in its’ purest form:
Raw, human interaction. Diversity in all its’ splendor. A celebration of the human spirit, of all we can be together. No barriers, no boundaries.
My three-year old son who was hanging out the window, turned to look at me, his tiny hands clapping, “Happy mommy, it’s happy.”
Quasimodo was forgotten. “Faith” had taken root instead!
I wanted so badly to get out of the car and walk with my family, arm in arm, towards those crowds outside Notre Dame and all of that “faith, but alas, our driver said we needed to move on and off we went in search of Montmartre and Sacre-Couer and all the other wonders of Paris.
But after we returned to the states, I thought about that moment at Notre Dame. The cynic in me argued that I was romanticizing things. Being a Christian and a regular church attendee, it’s natural that I would be excited to see such a diverse group of religious faithful joyously celebrating one of the most sacred aspects of Holy Week, at one of the most famous churches in the world.
But deep in my heart I knew I had been blessed by what I had seen in a different way.
And I began to wonder why I had couldn’t live out my life with a “faith” that simple and pure. No labels, no barriers, no ridiculous expectations or judgements, just pure happiness.
I knew how to do it. In fact, I think we all know how to do it.
Terrorist attacks, natural disasters, the death of a child…almost any tragedy, we move together without thinking as one “faith”. Oh, not the “faith” of a specific religion, but a “faith” that lives and breathes in each other, in humanity and in our very human desire to be the light in the face of darkness.
Yesterday, as the world watched Notre Dame burn, I once again saw the people gather, this time in the shadow of the flames engulfing their beloved treasure Their tear stained faces, reflecting the sorrow of what was lost, but in their eyes was a determination and hope that immediately took me back to that Palm Sunday fifteen years ago.
It mattered not where they came from. It mattered not their theology or lack thereof. It mattered not their income, their gender, their skin color, or any other label we humans assign other humans.
What mattered were the images of strangers, standing arm in arm, voices raised in song, defiant of the flames, reminding us that even in the face of darkness, happiness is just around the corner.
I need to make it a priority to not lose “faith” in my fellow human beings. There is much good there…SO MUCH GOOD!
Hope is alive. Positivity is stronger than Negativity. Let it in. Let it flow.
That’s what Jesus would want us to do. That’s what we should do!
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