April 3, 2013: Life Amid the Ashes

~by Virginia Rhys Anson, OFS

In my utopia, Easter is a day of sunshine, new growth, and warmth. Mother Earth awakens from her hibernation. Her hues of greens and purples and yellows, her fragrances of roses and lilacs and grasses saturate my being with the essence and hope of spring.

Easter is my season of spiritual rebirth. The growth of nature arouses my spirit. The promise of resurrection excites and refreshes my soul. For Jesus, my brother, has Risen. And, as he has done, so will I.

That Easter, some years ago, resembled my ideal. The sun shone in a cloudless sky and warmed our beings. Sparrows chirped as a breeze whispered through the leaves of a nearby oak. A robin’s nest, tucked within the shelter of a pine bush, revealed the open beaks of a new generation.

That Easter gave no foreboding of the death that would befall our parish. That Easter gave no hint of the blessing that would rise from that death. That Easter, life would rise from ashes—Resurrection from Ash Wednesday.

As was our custom on holidays, we spent this Easter with my husband’s family. The smell of barbecuing hamburgers triggered rumbles in my stomach as I watched my own fledglings pretending to be Reggie Jackson or Jose Conseco. Sitting on the deck, ignoring the hint of a sunburn on my legs, I joined in the family conversations. Periodically, I glanced at the desserts–my favorite part of a celebration. However, as all days must, this perfect one approached its end. We returned home refreshingly tired.

After putting our little ones to bed, my husband and I retired for the night, looking forward to a rare opportunity to sleep late the next morning. As I entered the world of unreality, I gave little thought to the numerous alarms that sounded in the distance–whispering a quick prayer that God would help whoever was in trouble.

Easter Monday morning, the telephone interrupted my dreams at seven o’clock. A neighbor’s news struck deep in my gut. The countless alarms that I had heard around midnight had summoned firefighters to a five-alarm fire in town. Our historic church, built in 1833, had suffered at the hands of an arsonist.

I fumbled to hang up the phone and sat in bed, staring at the wall. Disbelief and shock paralyzed me. Soon anger welled within. How could anyone deliberately set fire to such a relic–and especially on Easter Sunday? It seemed as if the fire had been planned for our liturgical day of hope so as to hurt more deeply.

No longer able to sleep, we visited our wounded friend–hoping for only minor injuries. As we arrived on the scene, volunteer firefighters, weary from their all-night ordeal, kept watch for the last remaining sparks.

Our eyes dared a glance at the church. How devastating! The front third, which housed the sanctuary and several irreplaceable works of art, was a picture of ashen wood. Blackened roof beams stood exposed–charred and naked against the morning sky.

The heart of our church was a dismal picture of destruction. The sanctuary had been nearly gutted and the first five or six rows of pews were no longer functional. Both altars,–remnants of two diverse eras –were ruined. High on the front wall, a stained glass window depicting symbols of our religious heritage, had been blown out. Fortunately, the remainder of the picturesque windows was intact. Most of the statues had also survived, except for the crucifix, which had lost the head of Christ.

It seemed as if the aspects of the church receiving the most damage represented the essence of our religion. And the rich architecture of this building had escaped with the smoke into the nocturnal atmosphere. It was sad–the apparent death of our church on the evening of Easter, our celebration of life.

Several parishioners had arrived before we did. The looks on their faces mirrored the hurt inside. Our dreams had been destroyed with our church. We could only stand and stare–and remember.

Those who could hold their tears in check recalled the baptisms of their children, the marriages of nieces and nephews, and yesterday’s Easter celebration, so full of hope. We pictured the first grade students’ portrayal of the birth of Jesus last Christmas and Mary’s embarrassment as her veil fell off during her attempt to stand. On Palm Sunday, the high schoolers had treated the congregation to a rendition of “I Will Follow Him” that rivaled Whoopie’s “Sister Act” performance. Not quite, but we parents thought so.

My memory was kind to me. I thanked God for memories. And I thanked Him that memories cannot be destroyed as easily as a church building.

My gaze strayed toward the gravestones that dotted the church grounds. Oh, the memories that lay beneath those stones. The history of a parish was encased within these graves–more than a century and a half of its ancestry. Some of the graveyard’s residents had been alive for the last fire that afflicted our church. That fire was not as damaging.

My eyes drifted, once again, to my wounded friend. How sad! How sad! The only thought I could muster. This destruction seemed like the end–the end of our dreams, the end of our future, the end of an era. The recovery into the next era would be lengthy–painfully so. Only one more glimpse could we bear before we headed home.

During the tedious years of rebuilding, we held our liturgies in the parish hall. The hall, I discovered later, was the original one-room school house. It needed a little remodeling, but functioned quite well as a makeshift church. Despite the somewhat crowded conditions, the atmosphere was rejuvenating and encouraged a spirit of community that had not been evident in the church. The hall had the flavor of a neighborhood meeting place. It was refreshing to greet friends I hadn’t seen in a week to find out how Christy did in the last track meet or if Mike passed his midterms in college or how Marie enjoyed her new daughter. I pictured the apostles as they entered the Upper Room to share the Last Supper, exchanging news of their wives and antics of their children.

This step toward fellowship seemed to be a nudge from God to move our parish forward, to move our parish toward becoming a family. But I also sensed that God knew that change would not be easy for those parishioners reared in a more traditional era. They could not be forced into this “new-fangled” thinking.

God seemed sensitive to the needs of these traditionalists. Bit-by-bit, He introduced relics from our burned church into the hall. One Sunday, as I entered the hall, my eyes beheld our marble baptismal font, which was as old as the church. It had been rescued from the ruins and cleansed of its ashy coat. It seemed a sign that God would combine the old with the new, so as to gently lead His people forward. The font symbolized the beginning of life and the security of history. The sight of the old had joined with the vision of the future–a sign of life amidst a scene of death.

Although nearly lost in the excitement, a single Easter lily also graced our sanctuary. We learned that the lily had been found–alive–among the rubble of the fire that had destroyed our church. We had discovered life amid the ashes–life amid death.

Our parish hall was a surrogate church for three long years. During that time, we began to find a community in these humble surroundings. We began to realize that our Church was the people–not the building. We began to discover that our Church–the people–had not died in the fire. Our building may have burned, but our Church had not.

The shell that housed Jesus’ spirit lay dead in the tomb for three days. But that shell joined with his spirit and rose for us on Easter Sunday. The shell of our church building lay dead for three years. On Easter Sunday, three years after the fire, it rose from death and welcomed its spirit–its community–newly resurrected, within its walls. Although hidden from our grieving community that bleak Easter Monday, there was hope in an ashen silhouette against the early dawn sky. There was life emerging amid the ashes.

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Virginia Anson grew up in the shadows of Sandia Crest in New Mexico. Family camping trips may have sparked her passion for nature. She holds an A.S. in Electronics Technology, a B.A. in Writing, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, and a certificate in Wildlife/Forestry Conservation. Her book, Mother Earth’s Caretakers, targets middle school youngsters and is published as an e-book for Kindle. Virginia is a Vietnam Era veteran of the U.S. Air Force, and her volunteer endeavors see her as a lector, Eucharistic minister, and sacristan in her parish and as a habitat steward for the National Wildlife Federation. She especially cherishes her life in the Secular Franciscan Order, following in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi.

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