Addressing the question from Psalm 137––“How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” asked by a people in exile––Philip Pfatteicher uses the Lenten image of fire to claim the rites from Ash Wednesday through Pentecost as an answer to injustices of all kinds. As people of faith, we sing in the place of ashes, in the light of Christ.
Fire is lit to burn the palms of victory for ashes of death used on Ash Wednesday at the beginning of Lent, and fire is lit at the Vigil of Easter when it becomes the light of Christ, the new life for all.
Holy Week is built on these images of power whose paradox is the bedrock of our comprehension. Let it be so.
Lent began in the destructive fire that consumed the dried palm branches and reduced them to the ashes with which our foreheads were marked on Ash Wednesday. To the world, it is a strange ritual showing only decay, destruction, and death, a gloomy and unwelcome reminder of what lies in the future for us all. But the ashes of the first day of Lent are not just the forlorn remnants of a conflagration, the powdery ruins of what once were green and living leaves. The ashes were a sign also, most of all, of repentance, cleansing, and renewal. They are the proclamation of the total destruction of our sinful past and the promise of a shining future with God. In the ashes of Ash Wednesday we see the two faces of fire: destruction and purgation, death and renewal.
The Sacred Triduum [the Three Days] reaches its climax in the striking of a new fire that recalls creation and brings light into the darkness. This is no ordinary fire, and the ritual of the Easter Vigil makes that clear. The fire becomes for us “the light of Christ,” and this light, rising in brightness like the sun, unlike the sun “knows no setting.” The frail light of a spark ignites a small fire that is carried by the Paschal Candle into the darkened church as into a tomb, and it is then spread to all the other candles in the church—the candles of the ministers, the congregation, the chancel, the altar—and no matter how often it is divided, this fire is not diminished. Indeed, as it spreads, it increases in intensity until the whole church is aglow with its light, bright with the glory of the resurrection, a splendid promise of the final victory of the resurrected Christ when all the world will be bathed in pure and holy light.
The proclamation of the resurrection is the declaration of a reality larger than this world, larger even than God’s enemies. We learn during Lent of the fearsome cosmic battle, and in Holy Week we watch the culmination of that warfare. It comes at huge cost, the life of the Son of God, but that awful price bought life for the world.
We can sing the Lord’s resurrection in a world ravaged by war and torn by violence because it was precisely in such a world that the crucifixion and resurrection took place. It was indeed for such a world that the crucifixion and resurrection were accomplished. As at the Red Sea, so on Golgotha, and now in our time, the power of God takes the forces of destruction and turns them, even against their will, into instruments of life and wholeness. It may not be visible from our limited perspective in this time and place, but the resurrection is the declaration that our salvation has been accomplished and that God’s will of remaking the world is being carried out. That is why the crucifix is not a repulsive representation to Christians, and that is why the blood of the young warrior dying on the cross, in descriptions from Fortunatus to Watts and beyond, takes on a strange and compelling beauty.
At the conclusion of the Great Fifty Days of Easter, fire breaks out again. It is the fire of Pentecost, the appearance of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles. Now, at the culmination of Easter, the destructive properties of fire are gone altogether, and this fire is wholly good and pure and life-giving. The fire of the resurrected Christ descends into the hearts of Jesus’ disciples and warms them with an energy and love that cannot be contained. With gladness we pray the ancient prayer, “Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful, and kindle in them the fire of your love.” And with the fulfillment of that prayer we, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, join the “company of the burning heart” who are suddenly aware of the power of God that has been at work in us since Ash Wednesday and that has been at work in the world since the beginning of creation.
Philip H. Pfatteicher served as a Professor of English at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania. A widely respected liturgical historian and scholar, he is author of many books, including Commentary on the Lutheran Book of Worship (Fortress, 1991) and Commentary on the Occasional Services (Fortress, 1983).
Philip Pfatteicher, “The Two Faces of Fire,” Liturgy 18, no. 2 (2003):5-7.