In another lifetime, I spent a summer working in Yellowstone National Park. I lived with a park ranger, wore a wide-brimmed hat, a khaki button-up shirt with green forest service-issued jeans, and hiking boots. I was the one who got to drive a park service station wagon and collected the change from the visitor map purchase stations at first light. Otherwise, I worked with the Junior Ranger program at the visitor center. But I was exposed to all sorts of naturalist talks and events going on throughout the park.
In Need of Fire
It was the summer of 2001 and Yellowstone was on fire. Huge hillsides were charred from recent damage. I even remember driving by a wedding party having their pictures taken in a meadow, while in the background, blazes licked the sky. There was a steady presence of firefighters in all restaurants and roads, working to keep visitors safe. We had all learned to co-exist with the fire.
The most pervading and bewildering lesson I learned from those who worked in the park was that, overall, fire is important. It’s wild, dangerous, even frightening, but the heat is necessary.
Take the lodgepole pine, for instance. Without the surging heat of a wildfire, its cones cannot open to disperse their seeds held tightly inside the cone, protected from predators. I wonder if this isn’t among the best illustrations of the Lenten experience—things held tightly to ourselves produce life only when circumstances allow for us to loosen our grip on them.
We need Lent like lodgepoles need fire.
Last month, I was at Super Bowl party with our family friends. Because football is not my thing, I was talking with a friend of a friend whose job (among three other folks in the country) is to survey regions where wildfires have burned and assess the likelihood of/damage caused by mudslides. He was sharing pictures on his phone of some of the yards and local landmarks after his most recent job on the west coast. The scene was unrecognizable: boulders bigger than SUVs rolled through family homes, yards and amenities, submerged, surrounded by thick, brown, sludge. If this story literally hits close to home, my heart goes out to you.
Gathered armchair analysts collectively sighed: Where do these folks begin?
I can’t help but feel the response is a lot like the gathered faithful after a Lenten season where perhaps some of our own hearts, practices, even our sanctuaries are feeling a bit unrecognizable. Having moved through the drought, maybe even fire, we exist in the immediate floodplain, in danger of being flooded by the quick and abundant shed of grace that is about to gush forth.
The Fire and Water of Holy Thursday
Today, of course, is Holy Thursday. The water begins its trickle tonight. It is the day we remember Jesus’ gesture of humility toward His disciples in the washing of their soiled, dusty feet. In churches around the world, Catholics will bring forth the basins, and towels, roll up their sleeves and remember the posture of servanthood in a literal way.
If there is a more spiritually-potent part of the year, I don’t know it.
The culmination of our meaningful or mediocre Lenten experiences come to a head in these next days. Not that our preparation (or lack thereof) will alter the meaning which God will make in our hearts this season if we are open to it, only that our preparations have begun for the first, meandering waters of the flood into our dry and barren souls.
What does this look like?
Maybe you begin the evening by breaking bread at a traditional Seder meal, as our Jewish brothers and sisters do, celebrating our shared heritage and marking the beginning of Passover.
It may be physically washing the body of a child, an aged patient, or ill relative.
It might look like cleaning the toilet after the stomach flu has ravaged your household.
Maybe you finally let someone into that place of hurt you’ve been holding onto, and through tears, experience relief, compassion, or forgiveness.
Maybe Holy week will culminate with a Baptism—your own, someone you’ve sponsored, a familiar face in your parish—glowing with new and abundant life.
Just like the topographical aftermath of a fire, tumultuous things follow extreme conditions.
Opening Our Hearts on Holy Thursday
Our hearts are in that precious, ripe, liminal time in which they are pulled between the harshness of what has been and the promise of what is coming.
The word Lent, with its harsh and sometimes even dreaded connotations, appropriately means “springtime.” What better metaphor for the re-imagining of life than by animating it with water? Regardless of where you live, if you have ever watched time-lapse photography of this change taking place, you know what I mean. The life force of springtime takes hold in our hearts in the sloshing of buckets, callused feet, the starchiness of towels, and our participation in this pouring out of water and of self.
How will you let the fire of God’s love open your heart through the remainder of Holy Week?
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Katie Cassady is a wife and mom to two little girls in Denver, CO. Steeped in theological reflection, beekeeping and motherhood, she is appreciative of any and all wisdom she can glean from those living intentional lives of faith. Find out more about her here.