Fire in the Cathedral

I am writing the morning after the horrific fire that threatened the very structure of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. In the aftermath, I have been listening to the various talking heads making their observations about this stunning moment along with the cultural implications. “It will be rebuilt” seems to be the headline.

My mind has gone to another fire. It was a fire that I witnessed many moons ago, in a place not so far away.

It was Conyers, a sleepy town, a short hour east of Atlanta. The setting was a Trappist monastery, constructed by the monks in a design that was based on a abbey in France.

We were gathered in darkness, in the middle of a grain field, in the chill of the deep night. It was the end of Holy Saturday, the day of “inbetween”, when Jesus was said to have descended into Hell, to break the bonds of death, and to set free those were captive.

The day before, we had followed Jesus to the Cross, to witness his ignoble crucifixion on the hard wood of the cross, after being betrayed and abandoned by friends. He went to the Cross, after having been turned over by religious leaders due to fears around his assault on their traditions and authority. Led to the Cross, he was condemned to death by the Roman government authority, the Empire of that time, because of the fear of another political uprising. “Crucify him” was the chant of the mob on this day. Sounds like some chants I’ve heard recently. And we were there, we participated.

Good Friday is the instant replay of this event, as the Church trots out the old, old story of Jesus’ death, his last words, and even breathing his last frail human breath, “It is finished…”. In certain traditions, the Cross is brought in with the corpus of a beaten, bloodied Jesus which is put before us “to survey” as the hymn goes. Some traditions offer the experiential moment of coming forward and kissing the feet of the corpus of Jesus. Others offer a bare black cross to symbolize the moment of abandonment, desperation, and futility. Good Friday ironically drags us to the foot of the Cross and leaves us there. This is high drama.

And so, we have languished and suffered with the Crucified Lord for a day. The “inbetween” day of Holy Saturday is a time that we don’t really know what to do with it.

But on this night, after sundown, we gather. Gathered in the chill of the night, our souls shivering with the undeniable truth of our own mortality, we come, not knowing what for and what awaits us.

The Church, the ekklesia, the Greek for “a people called out”, meets together, for what else can we do. Like the Parisians gathered, unplanned, unscheduled on the Seine, in the fading glow of the Cathedral, with the smell of old wood burning in the nostrils, we gather.

This is the night that the Church has learned to announce the most improbable Truth in the face of the undeniable reality of Death. On that particular night that I am remembering, the Abbot of the monastery lights the “new fire” of Easter, using flint, a loose bundle of dry straw, and a prayer. The fire is lit and  used to light the Paschal Candle, an enormous candle that will be carried through the field, up the hill to the darkened church building.

Arriving at the front of the church building, the Abbot raps three times on the huge massive oak doors with his crozier, his staff, Slowly, slowly, the doors creak open, revealing a darkness that I can still remember. I remember thinking of the dark mine that Tennessee Ernie Ford used to sing about when I was a boy, dark as a dungeon. That singular light made its way into the church, pausing, as the leader chanted the ancient words, The Light of Christ, at which point the people responded, Thanks be to God.

The Paschal Candle was carried in slowly,  its singular flame issuing forth an amazing radiance, breaking into the overwhelming darkness. An experiential procession moves into the heart of darkness, as we, the trembling faithful, followed in faith.

In the middle of the church, the procession paused, as again the affirmation was sounded, The Light of Christ, and again with the response, Thanks be to God. The light and shadows played tag as the flickering candle threatened to go out, in spite of high liturgical planning.

Finally, the procession reached the front of the church, as the leader turned to face the following crowd. And this time, with a more triumphant tone, fueled by the journey and relief at arrival, the leader acclaimed, The Light of Christ, and again the response, Thanks be to God.

As the Paschal Candle was placed carefully into the brass holder, attendants lit candles from the lone flame and began to move among to people, sharing this light with their neighbors. Slowly, the cavernous darkness progressively is illumined by the communal collection of candle power.

All of us filled that space with our flickering candles of faith, as we listened to the ancient chant, the Exultet, recounting the  cosmic drama of God’s love, overcoming death. We heard the biblical story of God’s original Incarnation in Creation, pausing as the
Creator assesses the work:  TOV, it is good, Then follows other Hebrew stories of God’s faithfulness, recounting that presence through the past, even to this moment.

This culminates with the reading of one of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s Resurrection. We hear the story once again, passed on from the original witnesses, the women, passed on to the disciples who had their own experience of the Risen Christ. These stories were passed on to others, and finally written down in four different accounts that were continually recounted among the faithful, and read, even in this particular gathering.

As the reading of the Gospel account is concluded, there is silence. A deafening silence, an open space of time, hung suspended between despair and hope.

And then there is Light. Just like that first morning of Creation, a brightness breaks over us. Originally it was the Creator, but on this night, it’s a hidden bespeckled brother monk, throwing the main switch at the aging fuse box, definitely a potential flaw in the human design. But, thanks be to God, and the Southern Company, it worked.

Flooding that very space, the full effect of light breaks into the darkness, blinding us in its brightness. The leader exclaims the words we had been waiting for: Alleluia, Christ is Risen! and we respond, The Lord is Risen Indeed, Alleluia.

Looking into the faces of my companions and those other people gathered, our eyes were dancing with surprise, shining with hope, with a joy, with a deep connection with something much bigger than we were at the beginning of the night.

Now, let me confess. I had been going to church since I left my mother’s womb. I was even on the cradle roll, placed in the nursery at a Baptist church, hanging out with another baby, Tommy, who would become my friend later in a youth group. I went to church on Easter Sunday with my family, listening to the strains of “He Arose” which Baptists sing obligatorily each Easter. Once, I even rolled out of bed to attend the Easter Sunrise Service. Have mercy!

But I never had the experience I had on that night at Easter Vigil in the unlikely place of a Trappist monastery. I experienced a joy that I had only heard  others talk about. And let me be clear, this might not be your cup of tea. You may love the blast of a horn section enabled hymn,  a bombastic Widor voluntary on a pipe organ, or the simple phrasing of a heart-felt praise song. Or your jam might be that of an oratorical pyrotechnic flurry, rhapsodically proclaiming the power of the Almighty. Whatever brings you light and good news is a good thing regardless of how.  But my sense is, we all experience a darkness at times. We suddenly grasp our mortality, or rather, we are grabbed by it. We need to find a source for our hope and our faith that will see us through our particular dark night.

For me, it was the new fire of Easter lit in the darkness of night, set in the smelling ripeness of a freshly mowed cow pasture on the Trappist monastery grounds. That’s how I roll.

Some years later, I was designated to carry that new fire into the Episcopal Cathedral in Atlanta, the first Easter after my ordination. I was honored to join those in the line of folks who have chanted the ancient verse, The Light of Christ, and carry it into the dark, foreboding tomb of the Cathedral of St. Philip, set on a hill in Buckhead.

Fire in the Cathedral has a very specific meaning to me.

Fire in the Cathedral for me conveys a hope that I needed and has a positive vibe.

Fire in the Cathedral is a experience that I look forward to every Spring as the Earth awakens and rebirth begins.

But an uncontrolled fire in the Cathedral in Paris brings despair, a deep sense of loss. Perhaps it ignites our deepest fear of chaos, of randomness that threatens our sense of meaning. And yet, even as the fire was burning, destroying, charring, the faithful gathered, carrying their stories and singing their songs, leaning into the night with hope.

Those pilgrims, gathered in their dark night, have the temerity to proclaim that Christ is Risen, the bold notion that the Christ  reigns over death, that Christ brings hope where despair threatens. Alleluia indeed!

The Light of Christ. Thanks be to God.

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