Sunday, August 14, 2016

Catching Fire

After the anticipated Mass, a young girl (8-9 years old) came up to speak with me.  She often has questions about my homilies, so I know she listens carefully.  She said, "Father Joe, when you were talking today, I heard a lady behind me say, 'There are kids in this church!'"  I tried to explain to her that she must have thought the story I told wasn't appropriate for children.  This young lady seemed much more taken aback by the woman's commentary than by the content of my preaching.  

"Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you...." 

 Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time   C 

It was late July, 1941, and a prisoner was discovered missing at the Nazi death camp in Auschwitz.  The usual price must be paid: when one is thought to have escaped, ten others must die.  The prisoners are all lined up outside, and ten are chosen, one-by-one.   One of the picked men begins to call out for mercy: “But I have a wife and children!”  The ears of the Nazi officers are deaf to his pleas… but they strike another man in the crowd.  In violation of every protocol, a prisoner steps foreword and says, “I volunteer to take his place.  He is young, while I am old.  He is a husband and father; I have no family.”  The man should have been shot on the spot for breaking rank, but the stunned officers turned toward him instead and asked, “Who are you?”  He did not respond with the number that had been tattooed on his wrist.  Nor did he answer with his own name.  He simply said, “I am a priest.”

The Nazi officers took him up on his offer.  He joined the other nine.  They were stripped naked, and thrown into an underground cell—not unlike the cistern into which Jeremiah had been thrown for proclaiming the truth thousands of years before.  The other prisoners knew what to expect in the days ahead, since some had been condemned to a slow, agonizing death by starvation before.  But this time was different.  Instead of anguished cries, they heard singing—religious hymns—and praying.  In the face of their certain death, the priest was giving the men hope—and the rest of the camp with them. 

He was the last of the ten to remain alive.  The Nazis grew impatient, and so on August 14, 1941—75 years ago today—they entered the underground cell with a needle full of carbolic acid, injecting it into his weak but willing arm.  The poison burned as it made its way through his veins and stopped his heart.  His lifeless body was then put in the ovens to be incinerated, as were millions of others.

That priest was a Polish Franciscan named Maximilian Kolbe.  Today, he is recognized by the Catholic Church as a saint—one in a vast and glowing cloud of witnesses whose example teaches us to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus as we persevere in running the race.  Given the manner in which he died, there’s a divine irony in the fact that he had once said, “The most deadly poison of our time is indifference.”  There was nothing indifferent about Maximilian Kolbe.  And the great ardor, the passion, the zeal with which he burned for Christ and our Blessed Lady, for the Church and all she teaches, was something that rubbed off on those who met him.  It rubbed off on his fellow friars who supported his often seemingly impossible plans.  It rubbed off on those who read the international periodical he published.  It rubbed off on the people of Japan to whom he went as a missionary.   It rubbed off on the husband and father for whom he offered his life in exchange, on his nine other cellmates condemned to death, and on the rest of the inmates in the Auschwitz who found hope in his heroic courage and love.  It rubs off still on men and women today, who are inspired by his life and helped through his prayers.

Jesus said, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!”

Spontaneous combustion is a rather rare occurrence.  In general, something only catches fire when it comes into close and sustained contact with something else that’s already burning.  And what’s true of material things is also true of hearts and souls.  We catch the fire of faith by getting and staying in touch with those who are already aflame.

Immediately going back to school after my ordination to the priesthood allowed me to have some rather unique experiences.   Among them: I was able to spend my first Holy Week and Easter as a priest in the Holy Land.  On Holy Saturday, a few of us went to the visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which marks the sacred sites of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Each year, the Orthodox Churches await the coming of the “holy fire” in that building, believing that the Holy Spirit himself brings a flame from heaven that is then dispersed throughout the world—the light of the risen Christ.  We were curious to see how this tradition unfolded.  Hundreds and hundreds of people filled the ancient church before the doors were closed and locked.  (No outside flame was getting in.)  The patriarchs of the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Coptic Orthodox Churches entered Christ’s empty tomb together.  And then the crowd waited and prayed.  Eventually, an arm reached out from the Holy Sepulcher with a flame, a commotion ensued, and soon all the candles and torches and lanterns people had brought with them were blazing.  The flame was waving everywhere you turned—people being rather reckless because they believe the “holy fire” cannot burn you.  (I wasn’t so sure!)  It was an amazing (and somewhat terrifying) experience.  As we were waiting for the coming of the “holy fire,” we met an Orthodox priest who spoke some English.  Wanting the inside track, we asked him, “Tell us—where does the ‘holy fire’ really come from?”  He smiled and said, “It comes from the friction of putting three patriarchs in such close quarters together…”

My friends, the fire Jesus came to set on the earth is one that is passed from one person to another.  I recall our rector in the seminary once saying, “You can’t expect to find fire in the pews if there’s ice in the pulpit.”  Those are challenging words every preacher ought to recall!  But every person who steps into the pulpit first comes out from the pews.  We must all burn with that fire of love and mercy that warms the heart, with the fiery light of truth that shows the right way, with the purifying fire that transforms us and the whole world.  As we see so clearly in the example of St. Maximilian Kolbe, we catch the flame by getting close to those who are already ablaze with the Spirit of holiness—and then we must pass it on!

“The most deadly poison of our time is indifference.”  But there is an antidote and a cure for this poison of indifference.  Let us fulfill the burning desire of the heart of Jesus!  Let us all catch fire!


Unknown said...

Wonderful homily! Thank you for sharing it with us.

Unknown said...

Wonderful homily! Thank you for sharing it with us.