A Thorny Question

Apparently, he never hesitated. French priest Jean-Marc Fournier ran into the burning Notre Dame Cathedral yesterday with one main objective in mind: retrieving and safeguarding the crown of thorns. I had no idea that the crown of thorns was hidden away in the Paris cathedral, but then I’m a Baptist, and we don’t go in for all that relic stuff.

Here’s one thing that people in my circle will say to this story: “How do you know it’s the real crown of thorns?” That’s a fair question. Sure, we can be reasonably sure that the real bones of Thomas a Beckett are entombed in Canterbury Cathedral since there’s record of them being buried there after his murder in 1170. Apparently the real bones of Peter are actually buried beneath St. Peter’s Basilica (as tradition had held for centuries). But what about the 912 finger bones of John the Baptist or the five tons of wooden fragments of the true cross? Isn’t the crown of thorns just the sort of thing that a gullible pilgrim could buy in Jerusalem a few centuries back? “The crown of thorns? Yeah, I know where that is. You meet me here tomorrow and I’ll have it for you,” the provider might say before heading to a local briar patch.

The real crown of thorns is described like this in Matthew 27:29-30:

They twisted together a crown of thorns, put it on his head, and placed a staff in his right hand. And they knelt down before him and mocked him: “Hail, King of the Jews!” Then they spat on him, took the staff, and kept hitting him on the head. 

The crown of thorns from Notre Dame, whatever its provenance, seems to have come to Paris in 1238. That’s almost an 800-year reputation whether it started its existence in 1237 or 1200 years earlier.

So here’s the question bouncing around my mind. What if it is the real crown of thorns that sat on Jesus’ head on the first Good Friday? What if it had been destroyed? I know, that’s two questions, but they’re intertwined. My Baptist self is ready to say that it doesn’t matter one way or another. It’s ready to dismiss this stuff as Medieval hocus pocus. Relics? Honestly!

But then I reflect on my experience doing Biblical drama. I’ve played Judas and Caiaphas and Peter among other characters, watching as various good friends have played Jesus. I know with certainty that Jason and Gary and Doug are not the Savior, but that doesn’t keep me from being moved when I have to betray or voice curses or simply watch the crucifixion.

The world would not be changed if some relic that may or may not be a physical connection to the passion of Jesus burned up in a 2019 fire. The Shroud of Turin apparently escaped the flames at least once in its history. The world is not changed if these relics are real or invented. The truth of the gospel far transcends anything that can be stowed away in a church closet.

But I have to admire the courage of a man running into the burning building to save something that, to him, represented a link to Jesus. The world might not be lessened by the loss of the crown, but it certainly wouldn’t be improved. We are, I think, improved by knowing that people like Father Fournier rush in to places that most people would flee.