When I was teaching at Fresno Pacific College, the college began a search for a new mascot. They had competed under the “Viking” mascot since early days, but one is hard-pressed to find any connection between the Vikings and the Anabaptist story. The concern was that such a violent name for a tradition fully committed to pacifism and peace-making seemed inappropriate. Having watched some of the recent History Channel series, “Vikings,” I can definitely see the point! Many new mascot suggestions were made but finally “Sunbird” was selected. In my circles it was received with underwhelming acceptance. What is a sunbird, anyway?
I was not privy to the discussions, but heard the talk in the cafeteria. Sunbird was not a reference to the colorful tropical bird distantly related to the hummingbird. Instead it was a reference to the Phoenix. For the small, new-to-competitive sport, college, the image of rising from the flames of death to new life, year after year, seemed appropriate. And for the faithful Mennonite community, the image could be interpreted as an image of resurrection, certainly central to our faith. But they didn’t want to use the term, “phoenix,” because it might sound too mythological or even pagan to the supporting community. Thus, “Sundbird.”
I am not sure why they couldn’t have chosen something less complicated like Banana Slugs (University of California at Santa Cruz), or even Beavers or Ducks? But Sunbird it is, with a surreptitious bow to the elegant Phoenix.
It was my first consideration of this venerable bird. The phoenix, a beautiful bird with shimmering red and gold feathers and draping tail like flames of fire, is storied for its long-life and its final completion of its life cycle in a showy burst of flame, leaving behind its ash, from which a new phoenix rises. Death is never the end for this bird.
To the Hebrew people, waiting at the base of Mt. Sinai, Moses’ entry into the fire was not unlike the story of the Phoenix. They watched, already terrified of the flaming, quaking mountain, as their leader walked into the fire, and was gone from their sight. Poof! Smoke and ash. Gone.
After their harrowing escape through the sea into the desert, and the defeat of Pharaoh’s army, Moses led the people toward the mountain of God. He was leading them to the place where he had first heard the voice of God out of the fire in the bush. This was the place they, too, would meet and learn to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
When they reached Sinai, Moses prepared them for what was going to happen. God was going to speak to them. “Stay at a distance and listen,” God had warned. Only Moses could climb or even touch the mountain. Finally the day came. “Mt. Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a a furnace and the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder” (Ex. 19:18-19). The people were terrified and trembled. They had no desire to approach this kind of horror.
God made covenant with them there and then. There was a whole new way of being with God, and it was based on right relationships, with God and each other.
After speaking the words of the covenant, God called Moses to come up to the mountain. And Moses went up into the fire and smoke. There, for forty days and nights, Moses was with God.
These forty days of waiting have two very different viewpoints. First, let’s look at Moses’ perspective. The experience of forty days and forty nights is a formative experience for Moses.
For forty days, Moses was with God. I imagine Moses’ experience to be much like one who has been on a vision quest. This forty days and nights was for Moses, to transform him. God had already spoken the covenant. It was not revealed in these days. The only concrete thing which emerged from these forty days was two tablets of stone with words written on them. It wasn’t about what happened on the stone. It was about what happened in the heart of Moses.
Like all vision quests, the seeker goes to a high place alone, exposed to the elements and sits with the divine and earthly elements. In these quests, the intimacy with God is so powerful that the seeker often receives visions, voices or other forms of guidance to give courage and resilience for the next phase of the journey of life. Moses was changed to a person who passionately loved these people, who pled with God for their lives. It came from a heart of connection more than from a person under orders. Just like the new covenant God had spoken.
Without the kind of intimacy with God which Moses tasted on the mountain, he probably did not have the strength of character to do the things he did. During this time, he developed a connection with the Holy One which changed his life. This was Moses’ transfiguration. It became an intimacy he could enter when he went to the mountain, or later into the tent of meeting. He began to wear a veil because the people could not bear the brightness of his countenance.
Moses, like the phoenix, went up the mountain tired. He bravely walked into the fire and the life he knew was ended. Purified by fire, he came down to the people new. Angry, Yes! Jealous for the God he knew, Yes! Now his mission came from within, having taken root in his soul with the presence of the Holy One. Glory shone on his face. (Read the story line from Exodus 19-34)
Lent can be a time of our vision quest. One of the key elements of a vision quest is fasting. Moses did not eat or drink during his time on the mountain. Fasting is also the central discipline of Lent. Why? We normally think of fasting as a way of purifying our bodies from sin. Yes. But it is also a way of entering an altered life where, by choice, we notice the Holy One right at hand. Like a vision quest of sorts, deliberately putting ourselves in a place where we are open to God.
There is a second perspective for the forty days of waiting at Sinai. I wonder what it was like for the Hebrew people at the base of the mountain?
When I think of Moses as the phoenix, I imagine that what the people may have seen was a tired leader. He had spent himself arguing with Pharaoh, putting his life on the line day in and day out. And his own people weren’t very supportive of him either. One day they doubted his word, the next day they complained because he didn’t do more.
It reminds me of the leaders we elect to govern us. We cheer and get out the vote. We battle with each other over our candidate’s excellencies. But then, when they are actually in office, everyone seems to have a complaint. No leader can fulfill all the dreams and imaginations of everyone, not even their own supporters. We see them age before our eyes in the media photos as reality hits.
The Hebrew people saw a bird who was losing his feathers, and tiring on the wing, no longer identifiable as the glorious red and gold king of the sky. Then, when he went up the mountain, he seemed to be consumed in the fire of God. Like a phoenix, he seemed to burst into flame and disappear. The transformation which happened in Moses on that mountain was completely invisible to the people at the bottom.
They waited. Moses had told Aaron and the other elders to wait for him to return. But he didn’t say how long he would be gone. And they kept waiting, watching the mountain for Moses’ return. They were a people without a leader. The words of the covenant had not taken root in their souls. They had agreed to follow all God had commanded, but then, well…, it looked like God had swallowed up their leader in flame. The mumblings and grumblings began. Until finally, Aaron agreed to make them a new image in which to put their trust.
The people’s Lenten discipline was waiting. Have you ever had to wait? How does it effect you? Waiting is humbling. Waiting feels powerless. Waiting feels useless.
But waiting, too, works in us patience. Waiting is the field where hope grows. Waiting strips us down to the place where we can accept the answers. Waiting is the discipline of letting go of control and letting life come back to us in its own form.
For the Hebrews, the waiting did not go well. They had not learned the discipline of waiting, and they turned to their own devices. They did not understand about the phoenix. They had no experience with resurrection.
During our forty days of Lent, we wait for resurrection. But we do have experience of resurrection. We know the story – that life wins. So in our waiting, may the Spirit of God, the Holy One, the Creator take over our empty places and fill us with new life. May we prepare ourselves to arise from the ashes in soaring life.