It was a cold day last February when Robin and I dashed into Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, just for a quick look around. Neither of us had been there for years.
“Oh, look,” I pointed out to her. “Here’s a poster about the Crown of Thorns. They take it out once a month and parade it around the church.”
“On the first Friday of the month,” Robin read aloud. “Um, that would be…today.”
And that was how we found ourselves — a Unitarian and a Jew — venerating the Crown of Thorns, one of Christendom’s most sacred relics.
A little history: Hidden away in the treasury at Notre Dame is what Catholics and many other Christians believe to be the true Crown of Thorns from the Crucifixion. The crown’s journey to Notre Dame took centuries. It was first discovered, so the legends say, by Helen, mother of Constantine, Rome’s first Christian emperor, on a visit to the Holy Land in 325. Sightings of the crown were reported in Jerusalem regularly throughout the next centuries. Eventually the crown was moved to Constantinople (now Istanbul) to protect it from marauders who periodically rampaged through the Holy Land.
In 1238, Emperor Baldwin, low on funds, pawned the crown to a bank in Venice. Before too long it ended up in the hands of St. Louis, king of France. He built Sainte Chapelle as a larger-than-life reliquary to protect the crown. The crown was whisked away from Sainte Chapelle for safekeeping during the French Revolution, and then moved permanently to Notre Dame early in the 19th century.
Robin and I noted the time of the service, dashed out to eat lunch and shop a bit on the nearby Ile St. Louis, then took our seats back in the cathedral just before the ceremony started. (If you do this yourself, I suggest arriving about 45 minutes early so you can sit on the aisle up front.)
The crown is guarded by the Knights of the Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem. Wearing flowing white capes and white gloves, these men took seriously their task of directing people to seating and trying to maintain some semblance of reverence. Suddenly the cathedral went quiet as clouds of incense preceded the crown and other relics down the center aisle. Photographs are forbidden, but there were plenty of flashes going off. I tried to join in too, but my camera jammed just as the crown appeared.
The crown itself was surprising; it’s woven of reeds, banded by a thin gold thread, and there’s not a thorn to be seen. Apparently through the centuries the emperors gave the thorns away to favorites and political allies. The reeds are encased in a glass circle, carried in on a red velvet pillow.
We watched the procession and sat through the mass so that we could get another look at the crown on the recessional. Just at the end of the mass, people in the rows in front began lining up as though they were going to take communion. We lined up too, even though we’re not Catholics. We figured we’d gracefully decline to take communion, but maybe we’d get a closer look at the crown at the altar.
It was only when we were five or six people from the front that we saw we’d queued up not for communion but for kissing the glass circlet containing the Crown of Thorns. No turning back now. (If the idea of kissing something hundreds of other people have kissed gives you the willies, you should know that the priests constantly wipe it down with alcohol. Or you can just give it an air kiss or press your forehead against it.)
And so we venerated just like everybody else.
When I was a tiny girl, my Southern Baptist mother sent me to a Catholic kindergarten. Each day started with 15 minutes of recited prayers. Protestants were excused; you could instead just put your head down on your desk. But Mama insisted I say the prayers. “It won’t hurt you to say other people’s prayers,” she said, “and it might do you some good.” I’d like to think she’d have been happy to see us there at Notre Dame.
No matter what your religion – or whether you have any at all – there’s still something touching about moving quietly in a procession of people toward an object that is sacred to millions. If you find yourself in Paris, veneration usually takes place in at 3pm on the first Friday of every month, on every Friday in Lent, and from 10am – 5pm on Good Friday.