Sunday, August 14, 2016

Mud, water, and Spirit: Why not become fire?

Readings: Jer. 38:4-6.8-10; Ps 40:2-4.18; Heb 12:1-4; Luke 12:49-53

In our brief Gospel reading Jesus, enroute to Jerusalem, said to his disciples- "I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing! There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!" Jesus here was likely referring to the baptism of his passion, death, and resurrection; his literal dying, being buried, and rising to new life. When you were baptized you, too, experienced this, at least ritually. In baptism, confirmation, and in each Eucharist, you and I are sent to be fire-starters.

The result of this baptism, just as the result of his baptism by John in the river Jordan, was an unleashing of the Spirit. Jesus was confirmed as he came up out of the water. It was then the Holy Spirit descended on him in the form of a dove and the Father's voice was heard to say, "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased" (Luke 3:22). The outpouring of the Holy Spirit that followed the baptism to which he referred in today's Gospel reading occurred during the first Christian Pentecost. It's fair to say that the fire Christ came to ignite on the earth was set then, thus fulfilling what the Baptist said to those who wondered whether he (John) was the Messiah:
I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire (Luke 3:16-17)
Like the water with which you were baptized, fire is both deadly and purifying. I don't believe we need discuss two fires. It's the effect of the fire, which will burn, or burn in, everyone. It is nothing other than the fire of God's love. After all, is not the Holy Spirit the love between Father and the Son personified?



In our first reading Jeremiah is cast into a cistern because his incessant prophesying was seen - to use a contemporary description - as unpatriotic. Once in the cistern, which contained no water, "Jeremiah sank into the mud." We are made from the dust of the earth and came to life only when "God blew into" the "nostrils" of the first human being "the breath of life" (Gen 2:7). In the end, thanks to the intervention of a court official named Ebed-melech, which name translates from Hebrew to "servant of the king," Jeremiah was freed before he died of dehydration or starvation. We are rescued by none other than the King himself, who breathes his Spirit, who is also the Spirit of the Father, into you and me. Stated another away, he lights us on fire and then blows on us to increase the flame; "Spirit" means "breath."

As St. Paul wrote in his First Letter to the Corinthians:
If anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, the work of each will come to light, for the Day will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire [itself] will test the quality of each one’s work. If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person will receive a wage. But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire (1 Cor 3:12-15- a good biblical reference for Purgatory, btw)
As Catholics we are suspicious and perhaps rightly so of what Pentecostals call "baptism in the Holy Spirit." In his book Sober Intoxication of the Spirit: Filled With the Fullness of God, Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, Preacher of the Papal Household, New Testament and patristic scholar, who is perhaps the Roman Catholic Church's leading Pentecostal/Charisamtic noted, "The term 'baptism in the Spirit' indicates that there is something here that is basic to baptism. We say that the outpouring of the Spirit actualizes and revives our baptism." A bit further on in his book, Fr. Cantalamessa pointed out, "Sacraments are not magic rites that act mechanically, without people’s knowledge or collaboration. Their efficacy is the result of a synergy, or collaboration, between divine omnipotence (that is, the grace of Christ and of the Holy Spirit) and [human] free will." Trying to describe baptism in the Spirit, Cantalamessa wrote:
What has happened to some people is similar to what happens when a fire is lit in a fireplace in a house. At first, the fire moves through material like paper, straw and dry twigs. But after this initial flame, either the fire succeeds in enkindling large pieces of wood and lasts until the following morning to warm the whole house, or it does not continue to burn and accomplishes nothing. This latter fire is a “flash in the pan.” In the context of spiritual renewal, either the initial flame engulfs the heart and transforms it from a heart of stone to a heart of flesh, or it does not reach the heart but remains on the periphery and soon burns out, leaving no trace of itself
How can we create conditions for perpetual burning of the fire of the Spirit? Fr. Cantalamessa insisted, "We need to be more serious about certain fundamental rules concerning holiness, which can be specifically observed in the lives of saints who are recognized as such by the Church." He went on to explain, after expressing his frustration with fellow charismatics who insist that living in the light Christ's Resurrection leaves no room for suffering:
At the beginning of a spiritual journey, grace is experienced in gifts and great consolations, so that a person may become detached from the world and make a decision for God. But afterward, once a person is detached from the world, the Spirit urges that individual to go the “narrow way” of the gospel, the way of mortification, obedience and humility. There is no reason that the Lord today would radically change His method and make saints in a different way, a way paved with sweetness and lofty experiences from beginning to end
St. Maximilian Kolbe


In the context of readings for this Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, particularly our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, we need to keep "our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God" (Heb 12:2). What does it mean to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus? To resist sin to point of shedding your own blood. Transliterated, the Greek word translated into English as "resisted" is antikathistēmi. In this context it likely means to stand against, or resist. The word can also be used to mean placing in opposition, or, more specifically, to set an army in a line of battle.

A well-known story from lives of the desert fathers strikes me as relevant:
Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and, according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not become fire?
If today were not Sunday the Church would observe the memorial of St. Maximilian Kolbe, who, like Fr. Cantalamessa, was a Franciscan. I think what Cantalamessa was trying describe in the passage I quoted about the necessity of sacrifice and suffering is captured well by my friend Artur Rosman in his post "Last Eyewitness Explains What the Sacrifice of St. Maximilian Kolbe Means." Like Jeremiah, Fr. Kolbe epitomized the manner in which a person on fire with the Holy Spirit lives, proving, yet again, that it is possible to live this way: on fire with the love of God, even in the mud.

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