Let's Talk about Fire

Let’s talk about fire. It’s all over our sacred writings. A pillar of fire led the Israelites out of Egypt across the Red Sea; the Angel of the Lord spoke to Moses from the burning bush; a flaming torch represented promises made to Abraham. Fire appeared on the holy mountain and fire appeared in the holy sanctuary, and tongues of fire suddenly came to rest on the disciples’ heads at Pentecost. Fire, eternal and mysterious, is how God chooses to reveal the Divine Self to us mortals, again and again.

And years later, in the writings of the desert fathers, young Abba Lot wondered what he should do besides pray and fast and meditate, and the elder Abba Joseph stretched his hands toward heaven and his fingers became like ten torches of fire as he replied: if you wish you can become all flame.

In 2005, the late American composer Stephen Paulus wrote a three-part oratorio called To Be Certain of the Dawn to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps and the 40th anniversary of a Vatican document condemning the belief that Jews were guilty of the death of Jesus, a belief that had led to widespread, persistent, disastrous persecution of Jewish people for centuries. The oratorio was commissioned by a Christian priest in Minneapolis as a gift to a neighboring Jewish congregation. 

The first part is called Renewal, but it would more accurately be called Repentance as it contains choruses expressing Christian grief and remorse over failure to support Jews during the Holocaust, and the long history of what has come to be called the Christian “teaching of contempt.” The second part, Remembrance, recalls faces and lives of Jewish children who were lost to the Shoah. And the third section, Visions, portrays a hope and desire for Christians and Jews to together live in peace and practice justice and mercy as the people of God. The sweep of the oratorio reveals and embodies this truth: that one cannot get to transformation without recognition of wrong and expression of repentance.

I especially love the song in the oratorio called the “Hymn to the Eternal Flame.” We offer an instrumental version of it from time to time at our Celtic service. Maybe you’ve heard it there. It is gorgeous. But even more gorgeous - and poignant, and bittersweet - are the words of that hymn, written by Paulus’s long time collaborator, librettist Michael Dennis Browne: 

"Every face is in you, every voice, every sorrow in you.
Every pity, every love, every memory, woven into fire.
Every breath is in you, every cry, every longing in you.
Every singing, every hope, every healing, woven into fire.
Every heart is in you, every tongue, every trembling in you,
Every blessing, every soul, every shining, woven into fire.”

Mr. Browne has written that these words are inspired by the image of the central Eternal Flame at the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem and the many thousands of reflected flames from candles at the children’s memorial there. The hymn asserts that every aspect of the lives of those who died is woven into that flame, that symbol of the Eternal Divine, where, united with God, they will shine forever.

Less poetically, perhaps, John the Baptist also gives us an image of fire, one that feels more disconcerting. Unquenchable fire that destroys the trees that bear no fruit and incinerates the husks of wheat puts into mind neither Spirit nor divine love but rather eternal torment. That eternal flame threatens those who do not stop and repent of their ethical lapses and instead figure that somehow everything will probably turn out all right if they just keep going as they are. No doubt John used the image to shock his listeners. And he got their attention - all of Jerusalem and Judea and all the region of the Jordan - pretty much everyone in the land of God’s people - streamed out to him in the wilderness, confessing, confessing, confessing. But the point of John is not the fire, it’s the repentance. John too, embodies that truth: that one cannot get to transformation without recognition of what is wrong and showing contrition for it.

There’s another property of fire to consider, and that is fire as a refiner, a purifier. Precious metals, gold and silver, are plunged to the heart of a fire not to destroy them but to burn away their dross, their impurities. And that’s the fire that Jesus, Messiah, Prince of Peace, brings when John says that  Jesus will baptize us with the Holy Spirit and fire: divine, eternal, purifying fire in which all the ugly is burned away until all that is left is the beautiful.

Like the three parts of To Be Certain of the Dawn, this too is the sweep of Advent: recognition, repentance, transformation. This is why we have to go through John the Baptist, that gruff wild man who calls people names, to get to Jesus, our savior, during this season of preparation. So we must not be afraid of holy fire. Jesus is coming and he is bringing holy fire. And through it God would have us be the light of the world. We must not be afraid to express sorrow and remorse for wrongs past and present. And I say that knowing how high my defenses are at all times and in all places and how much that feels to me like ripping a bandage off a wound.

But John’s crucial reminder is that our transformation will come only after we can recognize and ask forgiveness for the things we have done and left undone, as a church, as a society, as mortals. Confession, owning up to our errings and strayings, is the way to reconciliation; it is how we prepare the way through our wilderness for our savior. It is how we get to the joy of letting go of our deep burdens of guilt and shame and regret, those burdens that we carry around with us or drag along behind us and weigh us down so heavily, the ugly that needs to be burned away, until all that is left is the beautiful, and we have become all flame.