12 April 2012

Gandalf and Priests: Servants of the Secret Fire

Prior to the Easter Vigil Saturday night, the deacon, the pastor, and I went out to where the fire would late be lit in the courtyard between the Cathedral and the school.  It is a perfect space for the fire and for the congregation to gather around it, but it was rather windy at the time.
We still had just over an hour before the beginning of the mother of all holy vigils, but I wanted to be sure we could move the Paschal Candle into the Cathedral without the blessed flame being blown out by the wind.  I suggested that we could have the Bishop lightt the Paschal Candle and then light a small votive candle that could be shielded more easily and snuck into the vestibule of the Cathedral before the Paschal Candle, just in case we should need it.  My idea was nixed.
As I returned to the sacristy pondering the situation and still envisioning the sneaking of a holy flame into the Cathedral, these words ran repeatedly through my mind:
I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor.

Neither the deacon nor the pastor knew the reference, but the servers did and so did the Bishop (who enjoyed it).
The words come, of course, from Gandalf the Grey in J. R. R. Tolkien's great trilogy, The Lord of the Rings.  Gandalf speaks the words on the bridge of Khazad-Dûm to the Balrog.  He contines, saying to the "dark figure streaming with fire," "You cannot pass.  The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn.  Go back to the Shadow!  You cannot pass."
As the lines ran through my mind again and again, I wondered if some connection might be made with the Easter Vigil, so I pulled out my Tolkien books to have a look.

The Secret Fire: The Flame of Anor

"Anor" is a Sindarin word for the Quenya word for "sun," coming from "Anar."  The "Secret Fire" of which Gandalf speaks is the Flame of Anor, which is also called the "Flame Imperishable," the divine life-force of the world and of the universe.

In The Silmarillion, Tolkien describes the coming of the light of Anor:
Then Anar arose in glory, and the first dawn of the sun was like a great fire upon the towers of the Pelóri: the clouds of Middle-earth were kindled, and there was heard the sound of many waterfalls.  Then indeed Morgoth was dismayed, and he descended into the uttermost dephs of Angband, and withdrew his servants, sending forth great reek and dark cloud to hide his land from the daystar ([New York: Ballantine Books, 2001], 112).
In Part One of The Book of Lost Tales, we learn that Melko "fared often alone into the dark places and the voids seeking the Secret Fire that giveth Life and Reality (for he had a very hot desire to bring things into being of his own)" ([Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1984], 53).  It is this Secret Fire that burns "at the heart of the world" (The Silmarillion, 55).

It is to this Secret Fire that the Order of the Istari (the wizards) gave their obedience and it is this Secret Fire they wield.

The Secret Fire: The Light of Christ

Tolkien was, as we know well, a devout Catholic, and his Catholic faith lies as something of a hidden foundation supporting the world of Middle-earth.  Consequently, it is right for us to examine the Flame of Anor and to look for possible connections to Christianity.

During the great night of Easter, our attention focuses upon Jesus Christ, who referred to himself as the "light of the world" (John 8:12) and who is symbolized by the light of the Paschal Candle.

Lit from the newly blessed fire which we pray will bestow "upon the faithful the fire of [God's] glory" and incised with the Cross, the Alpha and the Omega, and the calendrical year, and marked by grains of incense symbolic of the stigmata, it is held aloft in procession to "dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds" (Roman Missal, The Easter Vigil in the Holy Night, 10-14).

As he sings the Exultet, the Deacon praises "the power of this night" that "dispels wickedness, washes faults away, restores innocense to the fallen, and joy to mourners, drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty."

This night is embued with such power because it is the night during which Christ rose from the dead and salvation history is brought to its fulfillment.  On this night, the Lord Jesus, whom the Exultet calls "the Morning Star who never sets," shows himself to be "the light [that] shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:5).  Christ is the Flame Imperishable.

What is more, "all things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.  What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race" (John 1:3-4).  Not only is the Flame Imperishable; Jesus also gives life and reality to the world.

When at last he came into the world and took on our human flesh, "he came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him" (John 1:11).  His identity was made secret and not everyone recognized his light.

A Servant of the Secret Fire
The connections between Jesus and the Secret Fire are easy enough to make, but what of a possible connection between Gandalf - and, through him, the Order of the Istari - and priests?

Writing to the Corinthians, Saint Paul said, "Thus should one regard us: as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God" (II Corinthians 4:5).  A servant must pledge obedience to his master and a steward safeguards what is entrusted to him.

We saw above that Gandalf and the Istari pledged their obedience to the Flame of Anor; before their ordination, priests promise obedience to their Bishop and his successors.  At the same time, they promise to be faithful to the teachings and discipline of the Church, which is the Body of Christ.  As Saint Paul says, priests are "servants" of the Light of the World.

At the same time Gandalf serves the Secret Fire, he also wields it.  The same can be said of priests.

Jesus said, "I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing" (Luke 12:49)!  When he wrote to Saint Timothy, Saint Paul urged him, saying, "I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands" (II Timothy 1:6).  It is this flame that a priest wields, the Light of Christ himself, which is entrusted to priests at their ordination when the Holy Spirit is called down upon them, the same Spirit who descended upon the Apostles in "tongues as of fire" (Acts 2:3).

Priests wield this gift, this flame, through the Sacraments.  Priests are principally ordained to celebrate the Eucharist and to hear confessions and absolve sins.  These two Sacraments of Eucharist and Penance each "dispels darkness, washes faults away, restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners, drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty," as the Exultet sings of the Light of Christ.

Through his priests, his servants, Christ the Lord "shed[s] his peaceful light on humanity" (Exultet) and those who follow him "will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life" (John 8:12).

It seems, then, that when the words of Gandalf came to me quite randomly - "I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor" - I wasn't too far off.

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