Sunday, May 19, 2013


   Pentecost   C 

Bad joke warning…
What did the fireman say 
when he saw the church on fire?
“Holy smoke!”
(You can’t say I didn’t warn you!)

Especially given the history here,
it should certainly get your attention to hear me say:
How I’d love to see the Church burning!
Now, don’t get me wrong:
I’m not talking about the building.
The Church, of course, 
isn’t made up of four walls and a roof;
the Church is what’s left 
when the building goes.  (cf. G. Rulter)
It’s the people—
the living members of this Body of many parts—
that I long to see set ablaze.

There are many symbols used in the Scriptures
to help us understand 
the nature and workings of the Holy Spirit.
In the Acts of the Apostles,
the driving force of wind announces the Spirit’s presence;
like the wind, we know not
from where the Spirit comes nor where he goes,
but recognize him by what his power moves.
This morning, I’d like to focus our attention
on another symbol in particular,
and that symbol is fire.

We have a love/hate relationship with fire, don’t we?
We have loud alarms in our homes to warn us of fire
and large departments of committed volunteers
with massive amounts of heavy equipment
whose sole purpose is to put fires out.
That is because fire destroys.
In a sense, that’s the first work of the Holy Spirit.
There are parts of the Church which ought to burn down—
areas in need of transformation, of renewal, of reform.
Sure enough, those places in the Church
calling for renovation, restoration, or replacement
are the very same ones we find within ourselves.
The Church is a society of sinners;
her faults are necessarily my own.
With the almighty power to take down things
which previously seemed indestructible,
the Holy Spirit purges sin:
searching out the shadowy corners of our hearts
and gutting them of all that is not of God.
Quite paradoxically, those parts of us
which seem the most beyond God’s reach
are actually the ones most susceptible to the Spirit’s fire:
when wood is dead and dry, after all,
it only takes a small spark to ignite it.  (cf. E. Leseur)
As St. Paul says, “Where sin has abounded,
grace abounds all the more” (Rom 5:20).

Now, despite fire’s destructive potential,
we find ourselves rather unable to live without it.
We need fire because fire warms.
Whatever your chosen fuel,
we’ve all spent the long winter months
depending on some sort of flame to heat up our homes.
Likewise, the Holy Spirit thaws out our often frozen wills.
As a French spiritual writer once put it,
            We need know nothing about the chemistry of combustion
            to enjoy the warmth of a fire. 
            Holiness is produced in us by the will of God
            and our acceptance of it.  (Jean-Pierre de Caussade)
Not knowing how to pray as we ought,
the Holy Spirit intercedes on our behalf,
that prayer might achieve its proper end:
not that I work on God,
trying to bend his will to mine,
but that I allow God to work on me
and his will to be done in my life.

And we also need fire because fire gives light.
Whether from sun or candle or electric bulb,
we’d stumble about even more than we already do
if it weren’t for flames, both big and small.
God’s gift of the Holy Spirit gives light to the mind.
The Spirit leads us into truth
by undoing the isolating confusion of Babel:
restoring us not only to clear communication—
hearing God and his messengers 
speaking in a language we can understand—
but restoring us, too, to genuine communion,
both with God and with one another.
The Holy Spirit, whom the Father sends in Jesus’ name,
lights our way on the dark and winding paths of this world
by teaching us everything
and reminding us of all that Christ told us.

The fire of the Holy Spirit burns away sin,
warms the heart, and enlightens the mind.
And like elemental fire here below,
the Fire sent from heaven is meant to spread.
Any attempt to preserve the gifts of the Spirit
as purely personal possessions
only results in snuffing them out.
That’s why I want—better yet, why we need
to see this Church catch fire:
because this cold, dark world,
this world weighed down by human sinfulness,
needs desperately to catch fire.
That’s not something we can achieve
by implementing a clever program
or embarking on a smart advertizing campaign.
Fire is a driving force, an unyielding energy,
but it can only transform what it touches—
and what it touches,
it transforms into nothing other than itself.
We must let the Holy Spirit’s fire touch and transform us
so that, through us, the same Spirit
might touch the lives of those around us, one-by-one.
“If you are what you should be”—said St. Catherine of Siena—
“you will set the world ablaze.”

A few years ago, an astute Catholic pastor noted
how we’ve come to consider high attendance
at Mass or other Church functions
as a sure sign of success.
He went on to point out that, on the great day of Pentecost,
the standard was a good bit higher:
people had to be on fire.  (cf. M. Heher)

Oh, that we might see the Church on fire!
Don’t say, “Holy smoke!”
Instead, pray, “Come, Holy Spirit!”

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