It was dark as we gathered for the Great Vigil of Easter and the items were tucked out of sight, so I doubt anyone noticed their presence. I had carefully prepared the kindling for the new fire and was poised to strike steel to flint, praying for a spark, praying for a fire to herald the resurrection of our Lord Jesus – light vanquishing the darkness. I was confident that the stone would spark, that the spark would fall true, and that the flame would blaze – confident, but not Elijah-on-Carmel confident. I poured no water. I taunted no false prophets. Instead, I hedged my bets. Near to hand, hidden from all, was the holy Bic, the sacred candle lighter and guarantor of new fire. I was prepared for no flame.
Just a few years ago, some local Pascal worshipers were injured when the new fire was kindled at another nearby church. I think accelerant was involved and matters got quickly and badly out of hand: sirens, ambulances, hospitals. Last year, in another local tragedy, a beautiful Orthodox church sustained extensive fire damage following the Easter Vigil, probably from candles left unattended and unsecured. I was confident I would kindle no such raging inferno – but not Elijah-on-Carmel confident. I used no lighter fluid. I cleared an appropriate safety zone around the fire. Still, I hedged my bets. Near to hand, hidden from all, was the holy fire extinguisher, the sacred snuffer of new fire. I feared a conflagration.
“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; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Still, the memory of the hidden lighter and fire extinguisher has lingered with me since that Vigil, forming slowly and hesitantly into a metaphor or allegory of sorts, though I still can’t precisely express it. If the new fire represents the presence of God, then what of the lighter? What of the extinguisher?
At the Eucharist, the celebrant offers silent or whispered prayer at the lavabo before the Great Thanksgiving. As deacon and priest I have often had the privilege of assisting with this ablution. I do not know what prayer each of my brother priests offers there, and I have never tried to listen in to that moment of great intimacy between servant and Master. An Orthodox bishop of a small, autocephalous jurisdiction once told a friend that he simply prayed not to burst into flame at the altar, prayed that God would spare the sinner for service once more. And there is the metaphor again, inchoate still: something about knowledge that God has promised to be present, something about fear that he might not show up, and something about terror that he might manifest in all his glory.
Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains might quake at your presence—
2 as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
and that the nations might tremble at your presence (Is 64:1-2)!
Yes, rend the heavens and come down with holy fire. But first, let me get the lighter in case You don’t, and the fire extinguisher in case You do. It may be that this metaphor is all about control. Perhaps we really do want God to show up – of course we do – but only in controlled amounts: present when called – at our convenience – but not wild, not unpredictable, not like Malachi’s messenger.
And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap (Mal 3:1b-2).
Longing mixed with fear: come, Lord, but not too near lest I be undone.
And now the metaphor begins to morph into questions and challenge.
Where am I fearful that God will not show up even though he has promised?
Where am I fearful that God will show up – unexpectedly, overwhelmingly?
Where and how do I seek to control God rather than to be controlled by God?
What am I afraid of: looking foolishly and falsely expectant on one hand or foolishly and truly small – insignificant kindling for the fire of God – on the other?
The challenge is clear: to abandon all hope and desire of control and to embrace and be engulfed by the love of God as God sees fit.
Rich Mullins got it right in his song The Love of God:
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
I cannot find in my own
And He keeps His fire burning
To melt this heart of stone
Keeps me aching with a yearning
Keeps me glad to have been caught
In the reckless raging fury
That they call the love of God
Yes, the reckless raging fury that they call the love of God. Come, Lord Jesus, come as you see fit – or not. Come, Lord Jesus, come warm me with gentle flames or consume me in the reckless raging fury of your love. Come, Lord Jesus, come beyond any thoughts or hopes of control and beyond any shadow of doubt.
Next Easter, if I am blessed to light the new fire, there will be no hidden, holy Bic. And while the fire extinguisher might still be nearby physically, I pray it will not be so spiritually, not in my heart.
Inline Photo: © Mary Kathleen Roop, used with permission
Featured Image: skitterphoto.com, used with permission