Monday, August 19, 2013

20th Sunday Ordinary Time Year C–On Fire but Not Consumed

It is startling hearing Jesus use all of this fiery language today; language about the earth being ablaze and division among families. This goes against the vision we sometimes have of Jesus as a meek and mild character. But, language of fire is something we’re all familiar with, we use it often in reference to our spiritual and emotional lives. Spiritually, there are Catholics who are “On fire” for their faith – they are bold and courageous, they have zeal and excitement for their faith, they want to share it and participate in it to the full. There are also Catholics who are “lukewarm.” This perhaps is the worst kind of Catholic – The Book of Revelation describes how the Lord “spits out” the lukewarm, like water that is distasteful to him (Rev 3:16). Lukewarm-ness is that wishy-washy, uncommitted middle ground wherein a Catholic is not “on fire” for his faith, but hasn’t necessarily “gone cold” to it either – he just doesn’t really think about it, going through the motions every week. Moving further away, some Catholics have “gone cold” toward God, maybe due to an illness, or death in the family, or other difficulty that tempts them to reject him or be angry toward Him.

We also use language of fire in our emotional lives. We speak of “burning with passion” or lust – a temptation comes and it overcomes like a fire. There is also “burning with anger” – someone cuts you off in traffic, says an insulting remark, or makes your job at work more difficult and you can feel the anger boiling inside you. Or the “fire of resentment” – where just the sight of someone who slighted you in the past burns you up inside. Or the “fire of jealousy” that burns every time you see the person that got something you’ve been eyeballing all year. If it’s not fire in our emotions, sometimes it is Lukewarm-ness, which is experienced as a sort of malaise, or complacency, or indifferentism – just coasting through life, day to day. And coldness comes when we feel alone, isolated, alienated from family and friends, or self-centered.

I think Jesus uses language of fire to redeem our experience of the degrees of fire in our spiritual and emotional lives. Jesus burns with a fire too! He burns with a holy impatience to bring to fulfillment his baptism, to accomplish the Father’s Will, to suffer, die, and rise again for us to save us from our sins. “How great is my anguish until it is accomplished!” we hear him exclaim in our Gospel today. But, the difference between his fire and ours is that he burns with love, a fire that burns continuously but does not consume or destroy. On the other hand, the fires we experience in our emotions – lust, anger, resentment, and jealousy – DO consume us as they burn; they burn us out, they burn us up. And the fire in our spiritual lives is quick to die down. Our Lord today wants to transform these fires into fires of love that burn continuously but do not destroy us – like the fire in the burning bush from which God revealed Himself to Moses – “although the bush was on fire, it was not being consumed” (Exodus 3:1-4). The first reading illustrated this transformation. The fires of anger that caused the king’s princes to throw Jeremiah into the cistern to die, are later in the story transformed into fires of mercy that cause the king to send his court official and three men to save him.

Our Lord burns for each one of us personally, to save us from the pits that our sins cast us into. But do we burn for Him in return? Last week I talked about how a nightly examination of conscience can reveal the small signposts that tell us we are on The Way or have gone astray. Part of that examination could be to ask ourselves how we burn for God. Does our faith stoke the fire when our feelings don’t? This is a very important question! Often we let our subjective feelings dictate the objective truth. Sometimes when we do not feel the warmth of God’s love or the warmth of his closeness to us then we conclude that He must not be real or must be distant from us. But if the truth was based on our feelings, which often come and go, then we would never know the truth. On the other hand, the fires of faith tell us that God is Love and He is close to us, even if we do not feel it. You could ask yourself, “Do I have a faith that fuels perseverance, or do I ‘go cold’ toward God at the slightest difficulty?” “Let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us,” the second reading said, “and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.” Two very powerful ways for stoking the furnace of faith, perseverance, and love are the sacrament of confession and Eucharistic Adoration.

In Dante’s narrative poem Divine Comedy, he describes an epic journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. In the first part, Dante’s “Inferno,” it is interesting to note how he describes the ninth circle, the deepest level of Hell. It is not like a lake of fire and brimstone with huge blazing flames like we usually imagine. Rather, it is a frozen lake of ice, with Satan trapped in the ice and gusts of icy wind blowing all around him.


Dante probably describes it as ice rather than fire because fire has connotations of warmth and comfort. Sure, Satan loves to stoke destructive fires of lust, anger, resentment, and jealousy within us. But, if it has been a while since you have been to confession, it can also feel like he has been packing ice onto your faith and love. Every time we sin, Satan packs more and more ice onto our hearts. Sometimes you can even feel the chill. But, remember what the prophet Isaiah foretold about our Lord: “A bruised reed he will not break, a smoldering wick he will not quench” (Isaiah 42:3; Matthew 12:20). If we carefully carry the small ember still burning within us to the confessional, our Lord in his gentleness and mercy takes it carefully to Himself. Then, through the confession of our sins, the counsel of the priest, absolution, and forgiveness he adds more brush and twigs to the ember until it is built back up into a bonfire. Here, the lukewarm are emboldened and those cold to God are warmed up to Him.

If you have not been to confession in a while, let Jesus’ fire of love purify you and reignite you. “Then flew one of the seraphim to me,” Isaiah also foretold, “having in his hand a burning coal which he has taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said, ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin is forgiven’” (Is 6:5-7, RSV). Rekindled, we can return to our duty of enkindling the world with true fires of love as Jesus desired, in such a way that no one who comes in contact with us will walk away empty. Either through a smile, an act of deference, a kind word, a supportive arm, a prayer, or an outstretched hand, everyone we meet will be touched by the fire of love in us. It only takes a spark to ignite a blazing fire.


Finally, Eucharistic Adoration also keeps the fire going. Of course, as you know, when a host is consecrated at Mass it becomes the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. What looks like bread, tastes like bread, feels like bread, and smells like bread, after the consecration, is not bread, but the living Presence of God with us. And on Monday morning after the 10am daily Mass, I take one of those hosts and display it on the altar in a beautiful structure called a monstrance. This display has a beautiful gold base and stem and a window surrounded with gold beams like the rays of the sun. There lies our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament waiting for us to visit Him throughout the day and to talk with him as with a friend.

Come… listen to his voice in your heart… tell him about your children, your siblings, your parents, your neighbors, your friends… tell him about your joys, your sorrows, the raise you got, the demotion you got, the “A” you got, the “F” you got. Tell him about your birthday, your healing, your progress… tell him about your illness, your disappointments, your failures. Let him love you and give you his light and his strength. Learn from Him how to set a fire of love to the world. Let him transform the destructive fires that burn within you. Let him embolden you to withstand any hardship. The fire is set, but it is not yet blazing. Will you be a part of the flame or a part of its extinguishing? Let Jesus, through confession and adoration, set you on a blazing path that burns its way to everlasting life.

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