I didn’t know what to expect at my first Easter fire. It was nine years ago, and I still remember it as if it was this morning. I had decided on Tuesday of Holy Week to attend my first mass (thank you Tim for suggesting it), and then my second mass on Wednesday. I thought I was just getting into the groove of daily mass when I turned up on Thursday to what was a prayer service and not a mass. Holy Thursday Mass was at night. The same occurred Friday and Saturday mornings.
But Saturday morning was different. When I arrived there were already several people outside preparing the firewood, the kindling and the tall stone brazier for the lighting of the Easter fire. I didn’t know at the time that the fire is lit in the morning after the prayer service and tended to for the rest of the day by parishioners. This is done regardless to weather and I’ve seen some years in the rain, in the cold, in the wind; sometimes all three simultaneously.
At sundown, after burning all day, the fire is used to light the Paschal candle (this candle represents the light of Christ coming into the world), which is then carried into the church and is used to light all of the individual handheld tapered candles inside the church for the Easter Vigil. As an aside, the entire church is in darkness and as the candles are lit and the people in the pews are illuminated, it is a magnificent visual as well as spiritual to have the darkness overcome in the manifestation of the engulfing light, filling the entire church with the warm glow of hundreds of candles and the quiet singing (three times during the procession) of the light of Christ with the congregation responding, thanks be to G-d. After that, the Exsultet (the Easter Proclamation) is read or rather chanted.
Before any of that happens though, hours before, the priest lights the Easter fire in the presence of parishioners.
I was a few people back from the stone container that first year. I couldn’t see very well. I was wrapped up in a large scarf, trying to brace myself against the wind. It wasn’t strong enough to push anyone over, but it was just enough to be annoying to the priest and his assistants who were attempting to light the fire. It was also very, very cold. I still wasn’t sure if I belonged here.
I knew the moment the fire was lit. I felt something touch me inside. I couldn’t see it, and it was a split second or more before the exclamation of the crowd in the front let the rest of us all know it was lit. I heard the flint and stone, that sharp scraping that has to be done in just such a way to spark, and it took more than once or twice.
When the spark caught the paper and dry sticks I heard a whoosh sound, but it hadn’t come from the fire, and I felt that whoosh inside me. I was startled by it, I was chilled, and not by the cold. Something in me had changed or pulled me one metaphorical step forward. It wasn’t this moment that drew me to conversion, but this moment stands out as one of those unexplainable, miraculous openings to a wellspring of new emotions. Tears came involuntarily to my eyes.
It was deeply moving and as everyone moved back inside to the gathering space sharing coffee, bagels, and donuts, I was lost in my thoughts wondering what I had witnessed, what I was feeling emotionally, savoring the continuing shiver in my soul.