The phoenix comes from ancient Egyptian mythology: a sacred bird with beautiful gold and red plumage. At the end of its life-cycle the phoenix builds itself a nest that it then ignites; both nest and bird burn fiercely and are reduced to ashes. But from the piles of ash, a new, young phoenix rises. The crane-like bird was also said to regenerate when hurt or wounded by a foe, thus being almost immortal and invincible — a symbol fire and divinity. It’s a song is said to be beautiful, filled with life. And finally, tears from a phoenix were said to heal wounds.
The story of the phoenix was not limited to the mythology of the Egyptians. The phoenix is the mystical firebird that was the chariot of Hindu God Vishnu. Its reference can be found in Hindu epic Ramayana.
The Greeks adapted the myth for themselves. They and the Romans pictured the bird more like a peacock or an eagle. According to the Greeks, the phoenix lived in Arabia next to a well. At dawn, it bathed in the water of the well, and the Greek sun god Apollo stopped his chariot (the sun) in order to listen to its song.
In Russian folklore, the phoenix appears as the firebird, the subject of many stories, perhaps none more famous than Igor Stravinsky's 1910 ballet score.
Jewish folklore tells the story that the phoenix was the only animal not to join Adam and Eve in their banishment from the Garden of Eden.
And although descriptions vary, the phoenix became popular in early Christian art, literature and Christian symbolism, further representing the resurrection, immortality, and the life-after-death of Jesus Christ.
(Most of my Phoenix history comes verbatim from the Wikipedia entry on phoenix mythology.)
It is interesting to note that the phoenix in modern days appears on the city flags and seals of Atlanta, Georgia...San Francisco...Lawrence, Kansas...Portland, Maine, and of course, Phoenix, Arizona. Do you know why? Atlanta was rebuilt after being torched in the American Civil War, San Francisco was rebuilt after being destroyed by earthquake and fire in 1906, Lawrence, Kansas was rebuilt after being burnt by Confederate raiders, and poor Portland, Maine has four times been destroyed by fire, only to be rebuilt again.
The city of Phoenix, Arizona sits atop the ruins of the city of Hohokam, a site believed abandoned around 1450.
(Again, my facts come from Wikipedia's entries on the various cities)
The phoenix is used as a symbol of rebuilding. Out of ashes…sometimes literally…something is rebuilt.
The phoenix is found in countless works of literature. Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is about the fall of an over complacent and abusive society. The firemen that burn the books of their society to "keep it safe" use a phoenix as their emblem.
In contrast is the character Granger, the leader of a group of wandering intellectual exiles, who memorize books so their content will be saved.
Granger gives voice to some hope for the future that is found in the legend of the phoenix. In a great commentary of the nature of human societies, Granger says:
"There was a silly (darn) bird called a phoenix back before Christ, every few hundred years he built a pyre and burnt himself up. He must have been first cousin to Man. But every time he burnt himself up he sprang out of the ashes, he got himself born all over again" (p. 163).
It is a clear nod towards the character of Bradbury’s book that the smartest, most well-read student of Harry Potter’s class is Hermione Granger. Hermione is not, however, J.K. Rowling’s only similarity to Fahrenheit 451. For prominently found in the pages of the series is an important character: Fawkes, the Phoenix.
Harry Potter first meets Fawkes while in Professor Dumbledore’s office in the book, Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets. Harry notices “a decrepit-looking bird that resembled a half-plucked turkey.” Harry is astonished when the pathetic looking bird bursts into flames, leaving only a pile of ash. Dumbledore explains:
“Fawkes is a phoenix, Harry. Phoenixes burst into flame when it is time for them to die and are reborn from the ashes. Watch him…”
Harry looked down in time to see a tiny, wrinkled, newborn bird poke its head out of the ashes. It was quite as ugly as the old one.
“It’s a shame you had to see him on a Burning Day,” said Dumbledore, seating himself behind his desk. “He’s really very handsome most of the time, wonderful red and gold plumage. Fascinating creatures, phoenixes. They can carry immensely heavy loads, their tears have healing powers, and they make highly faithful pets.” (J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, p. 207)
The word faithful is italicized, and the reason why is only made clear at the conclusion of the book. When Harry confronts the evil Voldemort, he speaks of the greatness of Dumbledore, who is powerful, yet kind and selfless. It is moments later that Fawkes flies in to assist Harry. It is Fawkes’ song that fills Harry’s heart with hope. It is Fawkes’ tears that heal Harry’s wounds, and it is Fawkes’ surprising strength that carries Harry and his friends to safety out of the Chamber of Secrets. According to Dumbledore, Fawkes the phoenix comes to Harry’s rescue because of the real loyalty that Harry displays towards Dumbledore.
Now, why have I spend so much time talking about phoenixes?
It is my understanding that the tradition of ashes on Ash Wednesday is more like the phoenix than many of us realize. Ashes have life and death properties that must not be separated from each other.
Ash is a sign of our mortality; it is what our bodies return to: when we die and once again become the dust of the earth
But like the phoenix, our life cycle does not end with death…new life rises out of ashes…out of death comes new life with God. It is the Christian understanding that after this precious human life is over, comes a new chapter, a new journey where we no longer feel any separation from God or each other.
There are other ways that we mirror the phoenix. We have many of these life cycles throughout our mortal life. If ashes are the sign of our sins…the hurtful things that we do and the needed things we fail to do...they are also the symbol of the new life that awaits us: the opportunity to learn and grow with wisdom, the ability to choose new paths and possibilities.
Marcus Borg says that “the path of death and resurrection, of radical centering in God, may mean for some of us that we need to die to specific things in our lives—perhaps to a behavior or a pattern of behavior that has become destructive or dysfunctional; perhaps to a relationship that has ended or gone bad; perhaps to an unresolved grief that needs to be let go of; perhaps to a career or job that has either been taken from us or that no longer nourishes us; or perhaps even we need to die to a deadness in our lives.”
Borg continues by saying that “we can even die to deadness, and this dying is also often times a daily rhythm in our lives—that daily occurrence that happens to some of us as we remind ourselves of the reality of God in our relationship to God; that reminder that can take us out of ourselves, lift us out of our confinement, and that can take away our feeling of being burdened and weighed down.” (Marcus Borg's Taking Jesus Seriously)
Think again of the image of Harry’s first encounter with Fawkes: the phoenix is ugly, weak, decrepit, and lacks any ability to heal himself or anyone else. The phoenix bursts into flames, ending that life and starting again. But he’s not instantly strong, beautiful, or able care for anyone. But what is evident is a change…the start of something new. The promise is that once again this life will be made whole and beautiful, with great opportunity to heal self and others.
Lent invites us to take notice of our many life cycles. We all reach moments of despair, when we think we’re ugly and incapable of anything, when we feel empty and alone. When new life emerges out of those ashes, it’s not instantly wonderful. Our struggles do not magically disappear. But there is a change in focus away from where we are, to what can be. It is to this new life that Jesus invites us all...and asks us to care for each other along the way.
Like the phoenix, our tears really can heal not only ourselves but each other. Like the phoenix, our songs fill the world with hope. Like the phoenix, we have great strengths that are not apparent. And, like the phoenix, we all reach points along our journey where we must be reborn to a new life.
One final, important thing…the church goes through this same life cycle. The church has periods where it can shoulder great loads and radiate great beauty, while being blessed with the ability to lift peoples’ spirits with song and heal peoples’ wounds with tears. The church also has times of being old and weak, tired and withered, obsessed with its own self. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, the church has moments of being reborn: fragile and uncertain, but with great hope and promise that reflects God’s love for all creation. It remains to be seen as to what point the Episcopal Church is at in this life cycle. But you can be certain that, like each of us, the church has a great deal in common with the mythical phoenix…and that God’s love and justice for all creation will once again burn brightly in the church.
(This was originally published February 2009)