Bonfire

by Jessica Hickey (c. 2010)

17 February 2010

“Care enough to be willing to die in order that evil may be over come. This is the law of the seed, Jesus pointed out, which bears no fruit except it fall into the ground and die. This is the Way of the Cross.”
(A. J. Muste)

“You do not enter into paradise tomorrow or the day after or in ten years; you enter it today when you are poor and crucified.”
(Leon Bloy)
 
Today, as the Church anoints us with ashes, she tells us: “Remember, Man, that you are dust; unto dust you shall return.” This reminder, so thrifty of words, is extravagant in its meaning. We could speak of the "sackloth and ashes" symbolism in the scriptures, or the recognition of our mortality and the need to use well the resources and time given us. Today, however, I was reminded of one of the Thomist philosophers who remarked, “Ontologically, man is a beggar.”

Ash Wednesday recalls to us our essential poverty, our dependence upon God, from we receive our being. But for mystery of God’s love shown through the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, our life would have been an irony to end all others: incapable of causing our existence or of deciding its purpose, we nonetheless exist, and we discover that we alone among all creatures have a destiny which lays completely outside the reach of every natural capacity. Post-modern philosophers note this fact, go no further, and conclude that life is pointless—as when Jean-Paul Sartre declared, “It is absurd that we exist.” Sartre is said to have sat sad and scowling in cafés, evidently unable to see the good of all that existed about him, including the divine spark within himself.

Yet for us, who have been entrusted with God’s Revelation, the thing takes on a differct hue. We may not be able to claim existence as our right. But the fact is that we possess it nonetheless. Eternal life, certainly not within our purchase, has likewise been offered us, not as a right but as a gift, a token of love. Existentially we are beggars, but we are beggars before whom a King lays the table, prepares the place of rest, and stands adorned as a Bridegroom—a King whose footstool is the earth. Is this poverty such as to justify the resentment of Sartre and his like?

Thus, the ashes of Lent open our eyes to a paradox, that the poorest of creatures is in reality an heir, if he but accepts his inheritance. This is why I can say that I will begin Lent with a sense of gratitude.

We associate today's ashes also with mourning and penitence, of course. Yet, ashes exist only where a fire has been. They are the last remnant of that which was, that which has been consumed, that which has served as a fuel—perhaps leaving behind the silver, refined, lambent and clean.

The ashes are in that sense the symbol of “something gone right.” That which the fire reduces to ash has served its purpose well in being consumed. Is this not the only right usage of sloth, selfish attachment, bitterness, and the like? We cannot build with such wood, but it burns well.

There is a story told of St. Remigius, Bishop of Rheims, who upon seeing his episcopal palace in flames, burning to the ground, suddenly recognized his attachment to earthly goods. “A fire," he is said to have finally remarked, “is always a pleasant sight.”

When at length this work is complete, there will be no more ash, for the fire will be able to rest, emanating heat, light and purity, on that which its flames do not harm:
“Behold, the bush was burning with fire, yet the bush was not consumed.”

“And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them.”

Lent lets us near the bonfire—literally, the “good fire”—that illumines, purifies, tempers, and refines. Like all people who gather about the flames, we will feel the sparks snapping upon us, we will carry on us for days the whiff of smoke, and yes, visibly be smudged with the ash.

But a bonfire is a merry thing, and, I always think, is worth the effort every time.

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