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The Catholic Moment: Big Old Fire

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April 6, 2011

By Jeanne Hunt

There is a raging controversy in the church. No, it’s not about capital punishment, married priests or euthanasia. It is a topic much closer to my heart: It seems there are two liturgical camps with regard to the Easter fire. The Easter fire is that beautiful fire we Catholics light on Holy Saturday night.


At the beginning of the Easter Vigil service, we gather around a new fire and light the new paschal candle. Then we light our own candles from the Christ candle. As we walk into the church with those who are about to be baptized, the priests sings “Light of Christ.” It is a mystical moment that has survived throughout the ages. The dark church is now filled with firelight and the fire outside the church burns with a brilliance that shouts to the passerby, “The darkness has ended. Jesus Christ is risen!” 


But here comes the rub: Some churches go the hibachi route. They put a little paper and a few twigs in a tiny container, light the candle and that’s the end of that. No one in the crowd can see the fire. Most people don’t even know how that big candle got lit. The fire is put out immediately with no mess, no fuss. This camp believes in keeping it simple with as little mess as possible.


Then there is the bonfire camp. These Catholics want a rip-roaring fire that rises to the heavens. Usually the Boy Scouts or the local pyromaniac is invited to create a safe but major conflagration. It is set up outside the church and is a serious spectacle. These fire-loving Catholics want the blaze to proclaim the ancient mystery of Easter in a wordless, amazing, great ball of fire.


I will make no apologies; I am in the bonfire camp. I have come to this desire through years of attending the Easter Vigil. I just love the mesmerizing beauty of the sacred fire. Fire is a holy thing like oil, water, bread and wine. And on this night, it speaks of something beyond our understanding. Christ is alive in the blaze. He is fire and light. He has put out the darkness.


Yet, what really convinced me was the witness of a 40-year-old Catholic woman. She simply admits that she is a practicing Catholic today because every year, as a child, her parents took her to see this fire. She was too small in the beginning to stay for the whole Easter Vigil Mass. The family would stand outside and watch the fire as the prayer began. The sanctity and pageantry of that event stays in her soul. The fire connected her with the power and reality of Jesus Christ. She says she has never doubted her faith for a moment. The fire brought her a gift: faith in the unseen Christ. I recommend to every family to just come and watch the fire. Your children will always remember and believe.


So, now I push for a big fire. In fact, at my last parish, they referred to it as “Jeanne’s big old fire.” The Boy Scouts outdid themselves, and that Easter fire leapt into the night sky in front of our church. Passersby in cars slowed down to watch. The assembly was caught up in the beauty, and it was magnificently…Easter!  After that vigil ended, I held a sleepy little boy in my arms and sat on the church steps watching the last remnants of my “big old fire” burn. The warmth of it put off the cold of the spring night, and we watched quietly. Then Joey asked, “Jesus is smiling at us, isn’t He?”


“He sure is!” I could say with confidence.


Hunt is the catechetical and leadership advisor for St Anthony Messenger Press/Franciscan Communications.

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