“My heart the altar and thy love the flame”
A colleague was laboring over Ash Wednesday’s sermon and kept coming back to the image of the phoenix. This was puzzling, so we talked. After pointing out that it was pure homesickness (she’s from the Arid-Zona originally), I had to admit that the image is really appropriate for Ash Wednesday and not just because we smear ash on people while quoting Genesis.
The story of the phoenix is that at the end of life it goes from home and builts a special nest. In that nest it sits until near death at which point it lights the nest on fire and burns to death. As the flames die back and the ashes cool, where the heart of the fire was, there is a golden egg. Eventually the egg hatches and the reborn/newborn phoenix rises from the ashes of the old.
This is similar to the spiritual mechanics behind our Lenten life because we are on the path to our own Easter rebirth. To get there however, we have to answer the call to die in fire and ash. As Bonhoeffer well knew, the life that brought us to this day is not the life that can bring us to tomorrow and that Great Gettin’ Up Morning. In a larger sense, this is a variant on the saying that “a problem cannot be solved by the level of thinking which led to the problem in the first place.”
There are times in our life where we are making small and gradual changes, that’s called daily life and growth. There are however moments when we need to take everything we are and have, put it in a big pile, and burn it to ash. In doing so we find, as Fflewddur Fflam did in The High King, that the fire tests and refines into beauty.
This is also part of the work of both our twelve step friends and those in psychology, getting us to face letting go of everything we know in order to grasp something greater. All of our certainties, all of our stories, all of our past life to this day has to be laid upon the altar and burned with fire. This is not even a one time thing, as Much Afraid found out in Hinds Feed on High Places. Throughout her journey she laid herself-thus-far on the altar and burned it all in fire.
While self immolation may seem a particularly unhelpful image (and, if it ends just in death it really, really is) the practice of laying our whole self down is a fairly important part of spiritual growth.
The Self I bring to today is a compound of many smart and stupid things. It is a being of brilliance and thoughtlessness driven by compassion and atavistic fear. If I simply build on what I have, adding compensation mechanisms to get around the dumb reactions and building bypasses to avoid the Bad Neighborhoods in my heart, I gradually become a shambling mess made up of bits and pieces bound together with chewing gum and bailing wire. Eventually, I end up making Frankenstein’s monster look like an orderly assemblage of regular parts.
Like a Ponderosa forest gradually being overtaken by spruce undergrowth and choked out by hypertrophic organisms, I need a fire to clear things up. I need to take my life and look at all the parts, sort the keepers and trash the junk. And, since we tend to carry our junk around like anti-treasures, everything not worth keeping goes into the fire. Everything that is worth keeping gets tested by fire and polished into new life (this is a biblical image by the way).
Like the phoenix, I need to die to the old life in order to be born anew into resurrection life. Golly, there’s something vaguely familiar about that idea, isn’t there? Almost as if this was part of what it means to say “he died for me, I’ll live for him.” Almost as if letting go of who I am in order to become someone more were the POINT of spiritual life.
Since we suck so badly at doing this kind of growth and life, the church has given us two seasons a year in which we can look at ourselves, dust out the cobwebs, and burn all the chametz into ash. And so the phoenix’s burning to ash as the door to new life is very like our own ash day and what comes after. It is a good visual symbol of what we do as we lay our life on the altar of grace, burn it all to ash as a whole offering unto the Lord, and then sift through the ash to find the life that is hidden there so we can celebrate and rejoice that “our chains are gone.”