Burning Time

by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund on January 2, 2020
In my desk there is a big sealed envelope marked “confidential.”  There are two things inside: first, all the written prayers from our Prayer Box since we first began using it over a year ago, and second, the griefs and burdens some of our members wrote as part of our Blue Christmas service on December 21. The prayer cards are not confidential, as we have read them aloud at Morning Prayer each Tuesday, but the papers from the Blue Christmas service are.  No one has read them, and no one will.

Part of our custom and commitment with both the prayers and the burdens is that they will be disposed of appropriately.  I confess I’ve been unsure of how to do that.  I’ve kept them safe and close by, but each time I thought about dropping them in the trash or recycle bin or paper shredder, the action seemed inappropriate to the dignity papers like these deserve.  They deserve a more solemn disposal.
 
A few weeks ago, however, I realized what I think is a good answer and won’t bury the lead of this piece any longer: we will burn them in our Epiphany fire this Monday evening.  The details: we’ll gather at the home of Kim and Michael Fry at 6:30pm.  Bring a beverage or snack to share.  Kim and Michael are at 300 Marietta’s Way in Buda.  We’ll burn the prayers and burdens during our brief Epiphany service at Kim and Michael’s.
 
This idea was inspired by a poem my maternal grandfather wrote.  He was a doctor, and after he retired from his medical practice, he ran a small publishing house out of an extra building on their property as a sort of hobby, publishing mostly local authors and his own work.  One of his collections was called Burning Time.  The collection was mostly about his years as a doctor.  The titular poem reflects on his experience of burning all his old medical files after he retired.  His life’s work, decades worth of patient files, confidential medical info—all of it committed to flame.
 
I wasn’t there when he did it, but I imagine Granddad Morris lugging archive boxes into the backyard and spending a whole day at it.  I don’t know if he wept or felt relieved or if he sat silently and alone or if Grandmom helped or if the West Highland Terriers they kept were nosing about.  Probably all of that.  But I do remember the final lines of the collection’s titular poem: “Still, a part of me is rising with this smoke at burning time.”[1]
 
The practical desire to dispose of confidential information; the emotional desire both to mourn and to celebrate the end of a career; the spiritual desire to make of one’s life’s work a sacrifice—it’s all there, ritualized by Granddad Morris in the backyard.  Some desires only fire can answer. 
 
There’s a permanence to burning that neither a paper shredder nor the town dump offers.  When paper is shredded, it may be messy to the point of being unreadable, but the paper is still there.  Its letters and texture and syllables still offer themselves to us.  When it’s buried, it’s still recoverable, at least for a while.  But when something burns it changes to ash immediately and entirely.  To burn something is permanent: these pages are now irrevocably gone from the world.
 
This permanence is part of what makes fire so terrifying.  A wildfire reaching a residential area, for example, can be rampant, harrowing, destructive, even deadly.  It can end neighborhoods and lives.
 
In the context of a ritual like Granddad Morris’s burning time, however, fire’s power of permanence lends a solemnity and dignity to whatever is offered to the flames: something is given away, surrendered, relinquished. 
 
Last year a priest friend of mine’s church finished paying off the mortgage on their building, so they got together after worship and burnt the mortgage documents.  Their community’s financial debt had been discharged.  It is gone from the world.  Because this was sacramental of their common life as a community of faith for a number of years, it was also a ritual offering to God of their time, energy, and resources.
 
The burning of a mortgage document by a church community who has been faithfully working towards paying it off, the burning of many lives’ worth of medical files by a doctor who has recently retired, the burning of written prayers and burdens at Epiphany—these examples move us towards the language of sacrifice.  A sacrifice is literally a “holy-making,”[2] an offering of something to God.  It’s less obvious to us contemporary Christians now that our principal sacrifices are bread, wine, praise, thanksgiving and financial gifts, but for much of human history, including in our own Judeo-Christian tradition, many sacrifices involved fire.
 
It’s easy to see why: fire rises as it burns.  Its fundamental orientation is up, toward heaven.  The ancients understood this to mean that fire was the purest of natural elements, and its rising signified that it was a favored means of divine commerce and communication.  When Gideon meets an angel of the Lord, he prepares for God a sacrifice of broth and a goat; the sign of God’s receiving it is a flame (Judges 6:19-21).  When Elijah battles the prophets of Baal, the sign that Elijah’s God is the only true God is lightning—the fire of heaven—licking down and consuming the prepared sacrifice (1 Kings 18, especially v. 38).  When Isaiah is called as God’s prophet, a fired coal is placed on his lips (Isaiah 6:6-8)
 
When something is sacrificed by fire, it is not only gone from our world but is received by God.  Fire is the gateway to the heavenly places.  When Gideon offers broth and a goat, for example, he’s offering to God from his tangible life’s work and livelihood: instead of a retired doctor’s medical files, it’s a goat from his own flock.  Both Granddad Morris and Gideon offered to God of their vocational substance.  No wonder the angels closest to God’s throne, the ones who forever sing “Holy, Holy, Holy,” are called Seraphim, “the burning ones” (Isaiah 6:2-3).  Their very being belongs to, and is, the praise of God.
 
One of the opening sentences for Evening Prayer is Psalm from 142, “Let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice” (v.2).  The burning of the incense, the rising of the smoke, these are outward and visible signs of our prayers being taken up.  When someone is baptized, they’re given a candle lighted by the Paschal Candle, which is to say that they’re gifted with God’s own fire.  As the candle burns, we see performed the truth that she now has a new, fundamental orientation towards God, to whom the candle flame points.  Her being is now that of a person drawn up.  She’s a little burning one.
 
This Monday is the Feast of the Epiphany on which we celebrate Christ as a Light to the Gentiles.  One of the great symbols of Epiphany is the star the Gentile Magi followed to Christ.  It’s as though God lit a fire in heaven around which all peoples might gather and be drawn up.  Whether you’ve gold, frankincense, myrrh, or a written prayer, burden, or thanksgiving—I hope you’ll join us.
 
As I said, our Epiphany celebration at St. Liz will have a campfire.  We’ll have food and drink, enjoy each other’s company, and say our prayers.  But we will also use this as a burning time.  We will offer to God through our Epiphany fire the written prayers and grievous burdens bundled in that sealed envelope in my desk.  If you have any other written messages you’d like to offer up at the beginning of this New Year, you are encouraged to write them out and bring them, or send them along with a friend if you’re unable to be present.  Again, 6:30pm this Monday, January 6th, and the home of Kim and Michael Fry.
 
We will let a part of us rise with this smoke and into the presence of God.
 
God’s Peace,
 
Fr. Daniel+
 
[1] Granddad, forgive me for not remembering the line break exactly!
[2] The word sacrifice breaks into two roots: sacra (sacred, holy) and facere (to do or to make).
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