Our Phoenix Is Risen!
Great Vigil of Easter
march 26, 2016
In the name of the One who burst forth from the tomb / and who is living still. Amen.
It’s high time we enter into the symbol on our bulletin cover. We’ve been using this graphic on the Easter Vigil for lots of years—and we’ve never made direct reference to it.
What do you see here? Right! A phoenix. And what is a phoenix?
Ancient legend has it that a phoenix is a bird that lives a long life—somewhere between 500 and 1461 years long, depending on your source. Then it dies and is consumed by fire, and out of the ashes comes a new life, a new bird. This is an ancient middle Eastern, and Greek, and Egyptian symbol.
The early Christian church adopted this legendary bird as one of its own symbols, too. The phoenix gives us a good metaphor for resurrection.
Now, the process of adopting pagan legend and symbol is one well known to the Christian Church, right? Just look at how Christmas was sited over Saturnalia, a Roman holiday of feasting and gift-giving. Look at the Christmas tree itself, adapted from northern European pagan tradition. Look at the name of Easter—that comes to us from Eastre, an ancient Britannic goddess of the springtime.
One of my former mentors called this process of adapting early religious legends to Christianity “baptizing the pagan.” Interesting phrase.
So let’s look at what Clement, Christian and Bishop of Rome around 100 AD had to say about the Phoenix—how he adapted the myth. Here’s a direct quote from a contemporary translation of his letter to the churches. It’s a little long, but it’s fascinating.
“Let us consider that wonderful sign [of the resurrection] which takes place in Eastern lands, that is, in Arabia and the countries round about. There is a certain bird which is called a phoenix. This is the only one of its kind, and lives five hundred years. And when the time of its [death] draws near, it builds itself a nest of frankincense, and myrrh, and other spices, into which, when the time is fulfilled, it enters and dies. But as the flesh decays a certain kind of worm is produced, which, being nourished by the juices of the dead bird, brings forth feathers.
“Then, when it has acquired strength, it takes up that nest in which are the bones of its parent, and bearing these it passes from the land of Arabia into Egypt, to the city called Heliopolis. And, in open day, flying in the sight of all [people], it places them on the altar of the sun, and having done this, hastens back to its former abode. The priests then inspect the registers of the dates, and find that it has returned exactly as the five hundredth year was completed.
“Do we then deem it any great and wonderful thing for the Maker of all things to raise up again those who have piously served Him in the assurance of a good faith, when even by a bird He shows us the mightiness of His power to fulfill His promise?
[First Letter of Clement of Rome, chapters 25-27, www.earlychristianwritings.com]
Jesus is our phoenix who rises tonight from death into a life he lives still. Have you seen him loose in the world?
Each one of us can probably look backward at our own lives and see resurrection at work. Think of a time when you went through the suffering of a job loss or an illness or operation, perhaps a time when a relationship dissolved or you had to back down from a dream that just wouldn’t materialize. These are all little deaths. And only with a good deal of distance can we see the new life that came afterward—a resurrection at the hand of God.
One of my favorite theologians, Richard Rohr, writes that until we have experienced “God upholding us so that we come out even more alive on the other side,” we’ll not really be able to enter into this mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection at a deeper level. And we may not be able to see him moving among us. [Richard Rohr, Yes, And…Daily Meditations, p. 16, based on Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, pp. 62-63]
He says, “’Cross and resurrection’ is a doctrine to which most Christians would probably intellectually assent, but it is not yet the very cornerstone of their own life philosophy. That is the difference between mere belief systems and a living faith. We move from one to the other only through actual encounter, surrender, trust, and an inner experience of presence and power. Then it is our secret discovery too, and not just a church theology.” [Rohr, ibid.]
How well have we seen the light infusing our various kinds of darkness and suffering? How well have we known our risen Christ at work, helping turn our despair into blazing joy?
It’s something mighty to reflect on: that even as Christ is our phoenix, we, by the power of God, are invited to be phoenixes ourselves.