I was working at our local food bank when I heard the news. My co-worker speaks French and was in the midst of planning her next trip to Paris. During a lull in our work, we both checked our phones for email and news. “Notre Dame is on fire”, she said. “What???” And we both hungrily looked for more details. How could such a landmark, a testimony to human understanding that there is more to life than meets the daily grind, an icon of the 15thCentury urge to build in stone that would last, be burning? But, of course, now we know, it was the roof – one of the oldest parts of the structure, built of timber. The fire, which occurred at the beginning of a week that is the most solemn and important in Christianity, was shocking.
The follow up was interesting to observe. There was a great rush to provide funds to “fix” the problem. And the corresponding response about why this particular disaster. Where were the funds needed for repairing Puerto Rico, or caring for the Libyan migrants, or other similar disasters?
What I noticed was how this particular fire elicited a wide range of response from folks around the planet. Notre Dame is an important symbol and there seem to be lots of people who may or may not be religious who feel that. And although there was a great outpouring of help for Puerto Rico (perhaps not so much for migrants), immediately after its devastation from Hurricanes, “fixing it” is not, in many ways, as easy, or as compelling. Human attention is fleeting.
What most interested me is the effect of fire. This particular fire united people who don’t even know each other. There is a positive side to fire – maybe even more so, than negative (unless life is lost). We know that fire in nature causes regeneration. The ground is renewed and new plant life emerges. The Hebrew/Christian scriptures emphasize this effect. Fire is often seen as a source of renewal, of starting over, of wiping out the old and bringing in the new.
Not long after the Notre Dame fire, there was a fire in a local condominium that resulted in an older person’s death. Walking by the building you could smell the smoke and charred wood. The woman who had survived told the authorities that they had candle burning that started the fire and they couldn’t put it out. The response from this community was as you would hope. People banded together to provide a new place for the woman to live and replacement for her furniture and clothing. They supported her as she recovered and mourned the loss of her husband.
Such loss, whether of an iconic symbol, or a loved one, brings much grief. But through that grief there is much new life that emerges.
Many Christians are about to celebrate the Festival of Pentecost which the biblical story describes as “tongues of fire” descending upon the gathered followers of Jesus after he has left and stopped appearing to them. Often called the birthday of the Church, I tend to think of it as the empowerment that comes when one follows the path that Jesus did. It’s a path that involves letting go and surrender to death of the ego-based self (and yes, eventually, physical death), so that the new life, what we call the resurrected life, can emerge in the present and grow our very being and vitality. That kind of fire means significant change for individuals and communities. Something that is often an anathema to the Church which seeks to hang on to the same-old, same-old. That certainly is not the Church that was born on this day. That Church was one in which people of all nationalities understood the speakers and were drawn to them. It is a vision of world united.
When I was a child, I got in trouble for playing with fire on my way to school. I had to cross railroad tracks and there was an oil barrel with a fire going and no one around. It was enticing to play with! Later, in high school, I became the drum major of our marching band and learned to twirl a fire baton. Now that was exciting!
There is a lot of potential in fire. What in your life, or the life of your community needs to burn?