The phoenix is a mythical bird which seems to emerge from within many religious and spiritual traditions. Its adoption by early Christianity came as a result of the mythology around its rebirth. Tradition had it from its Greek origins that the purple-blue-red bird would die, decompose and then regenerate. In some traditions in the church and in secular mythology, the bird would regenerate emerging from fire.
Like the pelican, which was associated early on in Christianity with the mythology around its willingness to pierce its own breast to feed its young, the phoenix was often depicted in art. But what fascinates me is how many religious traditions have adopted some form of the phoenix and incorporated it into their religious tradition in art and symbolism around the world.
The Chofah on the ends of roof lines in Thai and other Southeast Asian buildings, especially temples and monasteries, have always caught my attention and have begun to sneak into my pottery on large, ornamental vases. At first, I was unsure where there were coming from until I saw this photo from my sabbatical and remembered my love of this delicate, feminine, delightful architectural flourish on rooftops all over Asia. Like our cathedral spires, the architectural flourish is in no way essential or even valuable to the building’s integrity and yet it is a way to point to something more, away, up, out there.
And when I am with people, I notice that they too have this aspect to their being. Good, kind, humble people tend also to point to God. They seem to have this ability to reflect God’s goodness, kindness and generosity. And of course, wandering Thailand there were some temples whose Chofah had broken off in a storm and needed to be restored; and I see that in some people too.
Of course, the church has always had this struggle between the longing to point to heaven with its spires, the use of them for village and city medieval marketing and, at its worst, the temptation to use the spires to point to the church’s or clergy’s glory and power. And as I travel in the church, I notice that the spires will change their shimmer as the church’s ethos changes from season to season and leader to leader and generation to generation.
In the end, however, my hope is that churches are able to see past their own stories to the reality that spires point to a location in which a group of Christians, who follow a leader in sandals and a rough cloth smock, work to serve the poor on Monday through Saturday and then on Sunday, point to God’s glory as a way to find the encouragement they need to do that poverty work again for another week. My heart sickens when I see so many churches and monasteries whose founders hoped they would serve the poor only to find that within a few generations they were serving their own massive egos.
The iconography of the cathedral is generally of John’s eagle, but if you look at the embroidered eagles on the red banner in the nave, there is, well, fire there. We will look at that tomorrow…