By Emily Malloy
Is it the crackling sound of wood reacting to the air? Or perhaps the warmth provided by the orangey glow? Or maybe it’s the precarious nature of fire, that it both sustains life and threatens it? For at least 200,000 years (with a few archaeological sites suggesting 500,000 years or more), controlled fire has been a part of the human story.
Most interestingly, fire holds a unique place in salvation history. Throughout Scripture, we find examples of God communicating to his children through fire: Moses and the burning bush, the pillar of fire leading the Israelites in Exodus, Pentecost and Holy Spirit coming as tongues of fire. It is also through flame that we symbolize the returning of our gaze toward God: the prayerful glow of lit candles, the sanctuary lamp denoting Christ's true presence, or the joyous celebration of the Easter Vigil beginning with fire.
Bonfires celebrating the vigil of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, one of the oldest feasts in the Church, will soon be ablaze outside of the homes of many. Traditionally, this fire is blessed by a priest through an ancient prayer and a hymn is sung. On the longest day of the year, this brilliant fire symbolizes the significance of St. John the Baptist pointing us to the way out of darkness toward the light of the world.
Within the confines of the walls of churches and celebrations of feast days, it is easy to see how fire symbolizes one's interior disposition to create a space for relationship, and in particularly one with God.
In days past, through the technique of slashing and burning, fire created a fertile ground upon which agrarians would plant and grow. In a similar fashion, a fire creates fertile ground as we gather and foster relationships. The glow of the flame replaces the lure of the glow of a screen that often prevents us from interacting with the person next to us.
It is in these moments that we are gifted a unique opportunity to be present as we are when we light candles in prayer. This is not just a product of modernity. For time immemorial, people have gathered around the fire at the end of the day, setting aside work and worry. As the aroma of the wood aflame rises toward the stars, onlookers make space within for quiet. The lack of distraction removes the barriers we frantically build. It is as we gaze into the dancing flames that moments of quiet retrospection transpire and are interrupted by boisterous laughter, song, and storytelling.
At that one moment, each has the same focus that doesn't take away from the present company: the fire.
Like the dinner table, the fire is a gathering place. We huddle around a hearth at winter to keep warm and rub elbows as we gather around a bonfire at summer. There also is an unrepeatable joy of cooking over a fire as it seems to possess the unique ability to improve marshmallows. Moreover, akin to breaking bread, the fire makes possible an intimacy unlike regular interactions throughout the day, as if the flames set flame to the guards we build around ourselves.
The fire has historically been the gathering place. Yet, we've replaced the fellowship we can receive around the glow of the fire for a manufactured and much lesser version found in a screen. However, summer is a great opportunity to replace the simulated glow that gives us the false sense of connectivity with friends with a bonfire that enables us to be truly present to those in our midst.
As the Nativity of St. John the Baptist draws near, we can satisfy our deep-seated need for fellowship while illuminating the night sky with the visual representation of prayer in celebrating the forerunner to Christ.