Shadow and Fire

Holy Wednesday of Passion Week is a dark day as we recall and grieve over Judas arranging his betrayal of Jesus with the chief priests (St. Matthew 26:14-25). The day is sometimes referred to as “Spy Wednesday,” and other events connected with this day include those at the house of Simon the Leper, particularly the anointing of Jesus by Mary of Bethany. Many church traditions commemorate these events with Tenebrae, Latin for “shadows” or “darkness.” The Tenebrae Service is characterized by gradual extinguishing of candles, and by a loud sound taking place in total darkness near the end of the service. The purpose of the Tenebrae service is to recreate the emotional aspects of the passion story. It attempts to recreate the betrayal, abandonment, and agony of the events, and is left unfinished because the story isn’t over until the shadows of death are overcome by Resurrection light.

The bleakness of Spy Wednesday leaves me longing for Easter illumination. The antithesis of darkness is light, and the remedy for shadows is fire. In other words, ignis is the answer to tenebrae. We get our English word “ignite” from the Latin noun Ignis, meaning “Fire.” Fire has an aura of the eternal about it—you may be the one to start it and may be present to watch it fade into a red and orange glow, but in-between it appears to have neither beginning nor end. Perhaps this is why fire is one of my favorite images in Scripture. I thrill to Elijah standing strong astride the summit of Mount Carmel at his showdown at sundown with the prophets of Baal. The climax, of course, is when God rains down fire from heaven to consume the altar where Elijah’s sacrifice of faith lay drenched in water, waiting for an answer in flames. I love when John the Baptist refers to Jesus of Nazereth, stating matter of factly, “He will baptize you with water and with fire.” No greater image depicts the Holy Spirit than fire as the Spirit descended upon the early believers at Pentecost and had the appearance of tongues of fire above each of them.

So, I must ask myself, “What is it about fire that captures my attention and liberates my imagination?” Normal responses would include practical reasons such as fire warms hearts, fire cooks, etc. But more than that, fire dances with an energy that is otherworldly. Something about fire declares it is not of this world. Man may start fires, but only God can create fire. Its energy comes direct from the hand of God and alters all it burns. This explains the cry of my heart—“Holy Fire of God, dance in me! Make me to leap at your touch and draw others to You like flames attract insects in the night. Make me useful—yes—but make me more than useful. Make me creative and responsive, daring and obedient, spontaneous and steady. Give me an otherworldly glow. Make it obvious that I am twice-born and twice-baptized, immersed in water and in fire.”

Ignite in me love for the Father that burns so hot I feel it as well as know it. This was the experience of English mystic Richard Rolle who wrote:

I cannot tell you how surprised I was the first time I felt my heart begin to warm. It was real warmth, too, not imaginary, and it felt as if it were actually on fire. I was astonished at the way the heat surged up and how this new sensation brought great and unexpected comfort. I had to keep feeling my breast to make sure there was no physical reason for it. But once I realized that it came entirely from within, that this fire of love had no cause, material or sinful, but was the gift of my Maker, I was absolutely delighted, and wanted my love to be even greater. And this longing was all the more urgent because of the delightful effect and the interior sweetness which this spiritual flame fed into my soul. Before the infusion of this comfort, I had never thought that we exiles could possibly have known such warmth, so sweet was the devotion it kindled. It set my soul aglow as if a real fire was burning there (from, The Fire of Love, 1290-1349).

Even as Richard Rolle felt You burn in his chest, initiate me into the Order of the Burning Heart. Burn away all other passions until all that remains are the red-orange tongues of fire that is a passion for You. Deliver me from wanting to amass knowledge and theological understanding about You. Reveal Yourself so that I will intimately know You. As a branch exists by abiding in the vine, may I be a flame that exists by abiding in the Fire.

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