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A phoenix depicted in a book of legendary creatures by FJ Bertuch (1747–1822)
My father had an old bicycle when I was growing up. It was called phoenix. The name did not mean much, except that, it was a bicycle I had gotten from my father as a young boy. Phoenix was reliable although it was bigger than me and required a lot of tact whiles I rode it. The prayer was, the chain must never unhinge as the bar was no friend to the groin. Well, as you can tell, I was always fond of the phoenix. Little did I know it held a much bigger lesson than just an old trusted family means of transport.
My fondness of the Phoenix took a completely new turn on 13th February, 2002. I was 14 years old at St. James Seminary Secondary. St. James is undoubtedly the best secondary school in Ghana, let no one tell you otherwise. We attended church services twice every day and on this particular day, the morning mass was special, at least for me. Most Rev. Matthew Kwasi Gyamfi was the rector and as the ritual was at mass, he will exhort us before class. On this particular Ash Wednesday, he spoke about the Phoenix, not as a bicycle my father had but as a Greek mythical story.
Folklore as I knew it was about Kwaku the spider, but this story was different. Yes, it was a story about an animal just as the spider was, but that is as far as the similarities went. So indulge me as I tell you the story as I heard it 18 years ago, of course adjusting it for my own growth and learning. I tell it as we celebrate yet another ash Wednesday with the view that I may inspire yet another phoenix lover.
Once upon a time, a great bird lived in the high lands, a mighty bird only close in imagery to the griffin (a legendary creature with the body, tail, and back legs of a lion; the head and wings of an eagle; and sometimes an eagle’s talons as its front feet). This bird was so noble that, it is the only animal Zeus blessed with a halo. The halo was its sacred gift allowing it to fly the closest to the sun. The phoenix had grown as a great life in the sky, enjoying the beautiful heavenly view of the world. The bird lived in the sky, high above any other animal but its journey began some 500 years ago when it was born on the high desert mountains.
It is the eve of its 500th birthday, the nations had grown to witness the sight of the mysterious bird gliding through the skies in nobility, but on this particular day, its groaning could be heard, loud wailing, and thunderous quacks that sent shivers across the spines. What in the name of heavens was happening to our dear phoenix? As it turned out, it was its last flight, it must return to the high mountains in the desert where it all began.
At the break of midnight, the great legendary bird, returns to the heap of twigs and wood it had gathered and striking its beak against the stone, sets the heavy heap on fire. The glorious bird flies gently and sits on top of the burning rubble. The phoenix burns itself all through the night into ashes. It will appear all the glory of the bird had ended; its end had come in pain.
The more obvious perspective was the death of the phoenix, but the story of the phoenix is not one of an end but a beginning, the beginning of yet another 500 years of a glorious hallowed bird. At the first light of the new day, just when the dawn breaks, the story of pain takes a different turn. It becomes a story of rising out of the ashes after harnessing the pain as energy for rebirth. The sun of the new day comes and with it, a newly born beautiful phoenix, covered in a far more glorious halo than anyone had ever seen.
The old had given away to the new. That is the story of life; ashes and rebirth. For the religious, you may have gone for mass or a service today as we celebrate ash Wednesday, a day that begins the lent, a 40-day journey before we remember the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
The beauty of the story of the phoenix and Easter are very similar. The power of both stories remain in the inspiration that, it does not matter how much burnt you feel, there is a new life with the rising sun. Friday may last for three days, but Sunday surely comes soon. Wail, quack and endure the fire; for it is only through that we are born again.
In conclusion, Chapter One of my new book ‘Be The Difference’ begins with ‘Once upon a time…’ and then goes on to tell a great African story of sacrifice, a tale upon which all forms of transformative leadership is born. Sacrifice is not a gleeful word but a desperately needed one, so on this ash Wednesday, be reminded: Pain has its place and if you allow it, it shall serve you well, for sometimes when we sacrifice something precious, we are not losing it; we are passing it on to someone else.