The Saddest Firework Display

I'm geeky enough that, as well as the spectacle, one of the things I enjoy about fireworks is the chemistry behind them. I found a rather nice infographic about this (see below), but the TL;DR is that different metals produce different colours when you burn them, so fireworks are stuffed full of various metal compounds, with explosive charges to spread them out into a pleasing pattern.

Fireworks, l'Ampolla, 2017/07/16
Fireworks packed to send different metals in different directions
(All firework photos: Stephen Oliver)

Firework display infographic
Firework chemistry
(Image: Compound Interest, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

In Britain fireworks are normally associated with Guy Fawkes Night, though since I live in Cambridge I also get to enjoy large displays put on by various of the University's colleges for their May Balls which, naturally, take place in June — there's nothing like a centuries-old university for racking up odd traditions.

Another old tradition gave rise to the Spanish fireworks I saw on holiday this week. Despite being put on by a small coastal town near the Ebro delta, they easily rivalled any May Ball. Mind you the town, l'Ampolla, is a popular tourist destination and I'm sure they know their audience. The 16th July is celebrated in various coastal towns in Spain as el Día de la Virgen del Carmen — the day of the Virgin of Carmen. This is Mary (Jesus' mother) regarded as the patron saint of sailors and fishermen and being called upon to protect the fishermen of the town for the coming year. A statue of Mary is brought from a nearby church, loaded onto a boat, and taken out for a quick spin beyond the harbour. We couldn't see much of this sitting on the seafront, and we could only really spot the boat with the statue on because it was covered in lights. Once the statue is back the fireworks begin, and we were treated to a solid 15 minutes of impressive displays. My uncle set up a camera and left it running during the display, and I've taken some stills from that for this post. It's certainly an impressive thing to behold, but I can't watch the fireworks here without a feeling of sadness.

Fireworks, l'Ampolla, 2017/07/16A particularly well-timed triple detonation, with two different compounds for the centre and radiating lines

The whole thing revolves around people getting particularly excited about Mary, asking her to act as someone on the inside when it comes to asking for things from God (namely, a safe year's fishing). Jesus took the time to tell people not to get too worked up about his mother. We don't know how often, but one exchange is recorded for us in Luke's gospel:

As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, "Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you."
He replied, "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it."

Luke 11:27-28

Jesus' point is clear — the blessing of being able to call God "Son" is dwarfed by the blessing of being able to call him "Father", and all that comes with it. Which is not to say that it was a small thing to give birth to God coming into the world, the first chapter of Luke's gospel makes that pretty clear. But to be one of God's children — to be a Christian — is an even greater blessing. You can't put someone like Mary on a pedestal, with special access to God, without saying that our ability to approach God is somehow lacking.

But the Bible doesn't paint a picture of a God who's reluctant to answer prayers or listen to or look after his people. After teaching the crowds who came to hear him how to pray, Jesus reminds them that God cares deeply for his people:

"Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?
"So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Matthew 6:26, 31-33

There aren't any fireworks in the Bible, but if you want to see a lot of vivid colours in there, then the end of Exodus is the place to go, where God gives instructions for the building of the Tent of Meeting - the place where the Israelite priests would go to meet with God. Half of Exodus 39 is about the clothing the priests had to wear, and it's about as bright as they could have managed back then. And this showed that a priest going into the tent to meet God was a big deal, and that the Old Testament people of God really did need a go-between, a priest, to meet God on their behalf. But that era ended when Jesus died. The curtain in the temple that kept the people separate from God was torn in two, and Christians can approach God without fear, because God the Son, Jesus, is now our high priest.

And so we can come to God directly. The God who took the time to make copper burn blue and barium burn green will do far more than that for his children when they ask him. That's worth a firework or two.

Fireworks, l'Ampolla, 2017/07/16

Tagged in: holiday, chemistry, mary