Ash Wednesday, and the FDNY Fire Academy

Elise Ashley Hanley
Ash Wednesday, 14 February 2018
Mark 1:21-28
Trinity on the Green

I have one brother named Tom. While we are not that close in age (he is 7 years younger than me) – nor are we that close in height (he is six foot 4)…we have luckily always been close as friends – perhaps due to that age difference, or just to an upbringing that demanded we look out for each other.

I am very proud of the fact that my brother Tom is now a probationary New York City firefighter – also known as a probie.

(I like to think that maybe I had some good influence on him, as I used to force him to watch the TV show Rescue 911 with me back when we were kids). 

We both have had long journeys to achieve our vocations, and we have both supported each other through the thick and the thin. Tom is currently half-way through the FDNY’s Fire Academy, a truly grueling 18 week paramilitary program, that has required him to train hard in the cold, the snow, and in the ash.

It is a story he told me of an experience in the Fire Academy, that made me reflect on what we are doing here on Ash Wednesday.

On a freezing cold and windy day back in late December, Tom and his fellow probies had to go into a training fire without an air mask and cylinder. Without any Oxygen. Basically, they had to experience smoke inhalation. Tom has repeatedly told me that it has been the hardest thing they’ve had to do. He said he felt like he might die for a solid minute. The instructors were burning wood and hay. He said that he could barely see the person standing next to him, the air was that thick. The room was filled with ash and smoke.

The instructors were monitoring the air, however. They truly weren’t out to kill anyone! They told the probies that there was enough oxygen in the room for them to survive – they were not going to die. But the exercise required trust – not only of the instructors, but of each other. The instructors were trying to teach the probie firefighters how smoke layers – that there is always more breathable air towards the floor. (that’s why we are advised to drop and crawl in the event of a fire and smoke) And for added anxiety, the probies were required to answer quiz questions while they were struggling to breathe: one would have to stand up into the thicker smoke to answer the question, and if they got it wrong, everyone would have to stand until they got it right.

Torture? Maybe. Insane? Maybe.

The instructors acknowledged how painful an exercise it was, but that they had to do it. It would have been irresponsible of them to let Tom and his colleagues graduate without taking “a feed of smoke.” They were trying to make them think under pressure, in irritating smoke and heat. They were also trying to ready them for when they just might be in a fire without adequate air. They wanted to ready them to face something terrible, so that when they finally face a fire that is out of their control, they will better know how to respond. They likely won’t panic as much, if at all, because they have been through it before. When we rehearse for a bad situation, we are better prepared to face it when it occurs.

Today, we too are rehearsing. We too are being prepared. When ash is placed on our foreheads with the words, “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” we are reminded that we will all die. Every single one of us. We too are being readied to face difficult situations and circumstances. We are reminded that are bodies are temporary, and our earthly lives are fleeting.

We ready ourselves during Lent for Jesus’ death and resurrection. We follow the example of Jesus, who rehearsed and readied himself for his own ministry, suffering, and death by 40 days of fasting and prayer in the desert.

So, let us catch our breath.

Let us prepare to follow Jesus to the cross. Remember that we are dust, but God makes beautiful things out of that dust. Our Christian hope is that we too can share eternal life with Jesus when our earthly lives come to an end.

It is time to rehearse and prepare again and again for when that time comes.

Are you ready?

 

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