Dwelling among the ashes. It’s such a powerful image. Being coated in them, letting them smear themselves onto every part of you, turning you into something almost non-human, mono-color and almost naked in that way.
The amazing book on mahood Iron John speaks of dwelling among the ashes as a rite of passage in some societies, a time of giving up, of not caring, of nihlism… a sort-of state approved slacker life style.
The even more amazing Bible speaks of Job dwelling among the ashes. When he has lost everything, this is the place he lives. His friends come and find him there. It is worth noting, before they begin their mostly fruitless dialogues with their old friend, they spend a bunch of days with him in those ashes.
I was struck, the other day by the poignance this would have held for someone living thousands of years ago.
Begin with the amazing things fire does:
Fire is the light- bringer. The only light bringer, really. With out it, all is darkness. And this is a time when the darkness is not populated only by the contents of our imaginations. Fear of darkness is a pretty legitimate, rational fear. Their are creatures, and there are people who are likely to take advantage of that darkness and do great harm.
Fire is the heat-bringer. There is no central heating, their are no space heaters, electric blankets, little bags of chemicals to squish and activate to keep our hands warm. Here to, fire is quite literally the difference between life and death.
Fire is the thing that does some wonderful alchemy, turning dead animals (often considered unclean, certainly a source of discomfort) into life-sustaining food.
Fire is the bringer-together. It summons families around it in a way a television or board game can only dream about. It is unique, not just in what it does but also in how it behaves. The ways those flames dance. The fact that it has a never-ending appetite for fuel. How can it not be alive?
This strange thing makes strong things (like metal) stronger. It purifies that which we could never purify by hand. It demands our vigilance and care, less we get burned or the fire dies out, or worse tet, grows out of control.
The fact that a fire gone out of control can bring such destruction in it’s wake could only add to the anceint’s sense of the power of fire. No wonder they worshipped it.
But for all it’s potency, for all it’s magic, for all it’s strangeness, in the end, it was all ashes. In fact, that’s all you can count on, from even the greatest of fires: it will be ashes in the end.
To dwell in those ashes is an agnowledgement: if this amazing God-like thing is eventually reduced to messy useless, what hope is their for anything.
I have to believe that Job was there, and he was thinking about all the amazing things he had once had, and he realized that they now were nothing, and he found the remnants of a fire, and he thought, “This is my place, among the useless remnants of that which was once wonderful.”
There is a positive spin to this darkness and despair. When God appears as a fire that doesn’t consume to Noah, it’s easy to zip right through it. “Yup, yup, fire that doesn’t consume. Got it.”
To the readers at the time, this must have struck them in a whole different way.
All we see in this world is impermance. All the great things of this world will be ashes, someday. Perhaps we are even wallowing in them right now. Maybe we know that the fire had gone out. Maybe we are holding on to something with out even realizing it’s usefulness is ended, huddling around a pile of ashes for warmth, thinking it is still a fire. Maybe it is the ashes of relationships, a way of thinking, a dependence on substrances; maybe these were a fire once. Maybe we haven’t admitted their ashes now.
But we have the promise of a fire which will not consume. It will not consume us. It will burn forever, and never leave us with nothing but a mess. We can never dwell in the ashes of that great fire because it will always offer us life and warmth.
That’s pretty awesome.