2 Esdras 4.28 - So I stood and looked, and lo, a flaming furnace passed by before me, and when the flame had gone by I looked, and lo, the smoke remained.
Ezra wants to know if any time remains before the end, and whether he himself has any time remaining. The time that is left, says the angel, is like smoke, lingering in the air.
I think of Johnny Cash’s song, “Redemption Day:” “There is a train/that’s heading straight/to heaven’s gate.../and on the way, child and man/and woman wait...for redemption day.” I always envisioned the video for that song would be filmed by Baz Luhrman, focused on a single platform of an old train station, with Cash sitting there on the bench. The station began as a little country stop for carriage; as time passes, the man sits, and around him, it grows up into a city, then into a grand station, then into a subway, then into something we cannot imagine in the future, until finally, it crumbles, it is fallen and dusty, and then reverts back to the land again. All long, Cash is joined by spirits along the way, mostly slaves, vagabonds, cast-offs, but also the suffering of all stripes and walks of life, watching and waiting, so that even though the station changes, by the end, the field is full of souls, in grainy black and white.
The steam engine that passed early on gives off the smoke. But the smoke of the time remaining lingers. Does it choke? Does it merely hide what is yet to come? Or is it just a vapor - ?
Ecclesiastes speaks of the smokiness of our lives. “Life is but a breath,” declaims the Preacher, and life but lyrics on the wind. Yet, life is a breath. What future remains, what time is left, is the Spirit’s time. The flaming furnace could be Daniel’s friends’ trials, meaning that for Israel, the time was near. But on Pentecost, the next day to which we the Church look, the flaming furnace was not an implement of torture, designed to punish those who would not commit the king’s idolatry. Rather, what fell were the flames of the heavenly King; the disciples were in the midst of God’s fiery furnace, being taught the right worship of Christ. They were in it together, not alone; and instead of an angel, which is what the friends and what Ezra receive, we the Church are given the flaming tongues and the purification of the Holy Spirit.
The time that remains is the Pentecost time. It is the time of the Church.
But we would do well to remember that the time of the Church is smoke. The Church, and with it, my vocation and calling, are not eternal. The people within, certainly, are and will be. But the Spirit’s future is such that time will one day expire. And with it, this story must come to an end. This is not to say that eternity will not have its own version of a time-less plot. But this time, this existence, this smoke, it will pass. The Church would do well to learn Wisdom of this.
I would do well to learn Wisdom of this. The time that remains in this short life is to be Spirt-time, not self-time. It is smoke regardless. But will it be the smoke of the furnaces of idolatry, violence and punishment? Or the sweet fragrance and clouds of incense of a life of worship, peace, and prayer?
The revelation that time remains yet, but that it is smoke, is an exhortation. We are already spirits, made by the Spirit, walking and haunting a world that will one day pass away. We are, to be sure, embodied spirits, just as our Church is visible and has form and density. This is Cash’s train. It is also a furnace. That the Church should be described as a furnace deserves its own meditation, which for now, time does not allow. It could be a burning furnace of love, which provides heat and warmth to the freezing and destitute. It could also mean that the Church, like our lives, is often something we must suffer, something that the Spirit must save us from, that when we walk amidst its flames, it is the Spirit that must preserve us from smoldering. Praise be that such preserving is also refining.
We live in an age that is smoke, lingering behind the passing of a locomotive. May I never forget it, nor the flame that caused that veil, the flame that rests on the altar of my heart, concealing and revealing, watching and waiting.