“Look upon him and be radiant, and let not your faces be ashamed.” Psalm 34:5
At the Easter Vigil, during the pre-dawn darkness, we announce Christ’s resurrection by first kindling a New Fire, lighting the great Paschal Candle, and proclaiming repeatedly: “The light of Christ!” “The light of Christ!” “The light of Christ!” Fire is a powerful symbol. Fire provides warmth for the body and a hearth for food. Fire provides light, and without electricity, fire and light are both alike. In the scriptures, the symbols of fire and light are often used interchangeably. The psalmist writes, “Your word is a lantern to my feet and a light upon my path.”[i] And, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?”[ii] For the people of Israel during the years of Exodus, the glory of the Lord, shone in the Shekinah: a pillar of fire which guided the people by night.[iii] In the ancient Jewish Feast of Booths, a great candelabra was lighted in the Temple at Jerusalem on the first day, and there followed great processions with the faithful carrying torches in hand, not unlike what is done here and in so many places early Easter morning. We do this in memory of God who is light, in whom there is no darkness at all.[iv] And so, it is no surprise that the long-awaited Messiah was anticipated as a light-bearer.[v] Jesus even said of himself that he is “the light of the world”: the fire of light, the fire of love.[vi]
But fire is a mixed metaphor, because fire can also have such a destructive side. So much of the nightmare of history is incendiary. In this last century, the heinous side of fire has been used in the pogroms of Poland and Germany, in the killing fields of Cambodia, in Bosnia, Rwanda, Sudan, Darfur, Palestine, and in recent years in Kenya. In our own country, even within the last 50 years, we have these terrible scenes of Ku Klux Klan crosses ablaze, of the fire bombing of the children in Church at Birmingham, of the twin towers in New York imploding in flames, of suicide bombers searing the lives of so many. This is the other kind of fire, used with such hellish cruelty. Fire is a mixed metaphor.
The Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Britain and the Commonwealth, Jonathan Sacks, says that “…religion is not what the European Enlightenment thought it would become: mute, marginal and mild. It is fire, and like fire, it warms but it also burns. Rabbi Sacks says that we – speaking primarily of Jews and Muslims and Christians – “are the guardians of the flame.”[vii] Tragically, it is inflamed religious passion that has often caused, not resolved, but caused so many global conflicts. How do we claim this Fire of Easter as a symbol of Christ’s light and life and love? Several things come to mind:
- First, the scriptures speak of fire as in a “crucible,” which is a melting pot for metals which burns away the dross, leaving only what is pure and true.[viii] Is there any dross in your from which you need to be freed, made pure and whole. Dross mars who you really are. If there is something that is old, encumbering you – a memory, a resentment, a habit, a relationship, a belief – even something that used to be alive, used to be manageable, used to give you meaning, or identity, or security, and it is no longer a living reality but more like an encrustment suffocating you, maybe poisoning you or scarring you, let it go. Make this dross your offering to God, in what the scriptures call “the refiner’s fire.”[ix] Let it go, let it burn, give it up. Dross will really get in your way. The ancient language of the church speaks of the “Paschal Mystery.” The Paschal Mystery is that life comes out of death, amazingly enough. Out of Christ’s death comes life, and so for us. If there’s something you need to pronounce “dead” or “deadly” in your life, pronounce it. If there’s something of your past life that’s simply on a ventilator, let it die. It’s the only way you will know life, know the resurrection life that Jesus promises. Use this symbol of fire as a crucible to burn away dross in your own life.
- Secondly, bring the light into your life. Many people suffer from light deprivation, from seasonal affective disorder. This can also afflict the soul. This season of your life, if your soul is deprived of the light it needs, that light will only come from God, who is the source of all light, “in whom there is no darkness at all.”[x] God faces us in Jesus; you can face God because of Jesus. Let God’s light shine on your own countenance.[xi] “Look upon him and be radiant.”[xii] In the Easter Gospel where the women come to the tomb, they are afraid. They are told twice, “Do not be afraid.” Jesus says to them (to you): “Don’t be afraid.” “Don’t you be afraid.” If you find yourself afraid, let God’s light shine on your fear, and your fear will burn away like the morning fog. Saint Paul writes, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.[xiii] Meet God face-to-face. Receive God’s light. Don’t live your life cowering, with your shoulders hunched, your eyes to the ground. Receive God’s light shining on your own countenance. There’s nothing to be afraid of.
- Then finally, the fire of love. You have been created by God for the love of it. You have been given life to radiate that love to a world desperate and dying to be loved. Claim the essence of your identity as a lover, a lover of God, and then mirror that love with your life and with great generosity. If there’s something inside of you that is timid or apologetic, if you are just “sort of living,” if you’re waiting to get a life, if you’re looking for the meaning of life, you need to let the timid fire in your soul really burn. A smoking fire wants to burn. It’s ready; the fire is set, just ventilate the fire and the flames will spring to life. This is the fire of God’s love which has already been set in your soul, and it wants to burn. Let it burn. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.”[xiv]
Centuries ago, in the beginnings of monasticism in the Egyptian desert, the story is told of Abba Lot who came to Abba Joseph and said: “Father, according as I am able, I keep my rule of life, my fasting, my prayer, my meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of wicked thoughts. Now what more should I do?” Abba Joseph rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said, “Why not be totally changed into fire?”
[i] Psalm 119:105.
[ii] Psalm 27:1.
[iii] Exodus 13:21-22; 14:24.
[iv] 1 John 1:5.
[v] Matthew 4:16.
[vi] John 8;12; 9:5.
[vii] Jonathan Sacks in The Dignity of Difference; How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (Continuum), p. 11.
[viii] Proverbs 17.3: “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, but the Lord tests the heart.” Also, Proverbs 25.4: “Take away the dross from the silver, and the smith has material for a vessel…”
[ix] Malachi 3:2-3.
[x] Psalm 139:11 “Darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day; darkness and light to you are both alike.”
[xi] Numbers 6:24-26 – “The Lord bless you and keep you; 25the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; 26the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.”
[xii] Psalm 34:5.
[xiii] Romans 8:38-39.
[xiv] Matthew 5:14.
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