What are your most memorable experiences, of fire? Are they over campfires, perhaps as a child? Warming yourself by the fireplace in a living room? Or simply sitting by candlelight and staring into the flame?
The year I lived in Israel, a wildfire broke out on the mountain down from the monastery where I was staying. From the windows of the main guest house, you could see the smoke rising. Other volunteers, who were living in small huts between the guest house and where the fire had broken out, became engaged in trying to keep it from spreading. It was a hot, dry summer afternoon.
Eventually the fire was more or less contained, but because of the intense dry heat, other bushes, olive and carob trees, and shrubbery close by continued to smoke. Some would spontaneously burst into flame. We all watched vigilantly for these smaller, spontaneous fiery outbursts and would dash immediately to them, to put them out as quickly as possible; it felt like an eerie, surreal game of whackamole.
Prior to that afternoon, my experience of fire had always been pleasurable, domestic and tame. That day, for the first time, I encountered something entirely different: a living, awesome and awful creature, unpredictable, powerful, and frightening, capable of consuming anything in its path, be it trees, houses, people, and yes, even ancient, hallowed cathedrals.
I later learned from a friend of mine, a wildland firefighter, that fires are also a natural part of many forest ecosystems and can actually serve to renew and invigorate them. She herself had helped with several prescribed fires or “burns” as a way of managing and caring for forests in Colorado. Forests recover from fires through the germination of seeds stored in the forest floor; in fact, some tree species, like certain pines, actually need the high temperature of a fire for their seeds to be freed from the resinous bond that seals them closed.
So fires have both the power to destroy and to help bring forth new life.
This Saturday at the Easter Vigil, our first service of Easter, we will light the Paschal Fire; it is from this fire that our Paschal candle — the big, white, stand-alone candle brought out for every baptism and every funeral or memorial service — will be lit. As we light the Paschal fire, we will pray these words:
“O God, through your Son you have bestowed upon your people the brightness of your light: Sanctify this new fire, and grant that in this Paschal feast we may so burn with heavenly desires, that with pure minds we may attain to the festival of everlasting light.”
As we pray these words, I will be praying for our brothers and sisters in Paris and Roman Catholics around the world, that the Holy Spirit may inspire them with new life and hope. I will also be praying that each of us, through the celebration of Easter, may find our faith rekindled and reinvigorated, so together we may truly be Christ’s living body, here and now, helping to heal that which is broken in our precious world.