In February and March of 1972, the UK experienced power cuts up to as much as nine hours per day. I remember it well. My father had just retired as a docker from Ardrossan harbour and had received his “golden handshake.” My mother talked him into spending a good part of it on a long holiday to New Zealand to visit siblings of hers that she had not seen in decades. They left just about the time the power cuts started, and I was left at home in the able care of my sister Bernadette. I remember the long evenings in front of the fire, lit with coal and wooden logs. We read, played scrabble, made toast on the fire and, of course, I had to do my homework by firelight!
Fire in the hearth of home enkindles a fire in your heart. In other times, we often would turn out the light in our living room to sit in front of the fire. My mother would get out the accordion or the banjo and we would sing songs. I don’t recall much poetry being recited or soliloquies from Shakespeare! But there was a magical bonding power to sitting almost knee to knee around the fire.
And so, whenever I hear of fire in the Scriptures, I subconsciously feel warmth and a sense of security. I know that if you lived in Sydney today, or in California, the notion of fire would only arouse panic and dread. Fire is a good servant, but a bad master. Like many of the elements of creation, it is double-edged. And in the Scriptures, too, fire does not always mean warmth and cosiness.
John the Baptist, in today’s Gospel, speaks of two kinds of fire: the “fire that will never go out”, referring to hell; and the “baptism of fire” with which Jesus will baptise those who believe in him. One fire “burns away the chaff” of the unrepentant; the other refines and purifies the repentant.
What does it mean to say that Jesus “baptises with the Holy Spirit and fire”?
Can you imagine if, on baptising a child at our baptismal font here, instead of a jug of water, I produced a Bunsen burner! And instead of pouring water three times on the child’s head I gave it three blasts of fire! I would be likely to be incinerated myself if I tried that!
The Baptist is referring, of course, not to a physical fire, but to a fire that is even more real than that, even more destructive and yet constructive than that. In baptism, the Holy Spirit, the fire of Pentecost, falls on the soul of the child and, as it were, purifies it, burns out of it, the affliction of original sin. Remember that original sin is not some “mark on the soul” but the situation of being alienated from God. It is a condition inherited by all humanity as the result of our first parents’ rejection of God’s will.
We inherit it because all humanity is in fact one in the eyes of God. If the head of humanity (as Adam was) rejected God, then all humanity rejected him. And so, all of us need to be reconciled with him. Jesus, as the new head of fallen humanity, reverses its condition by his obedience to the Father on the Cross. At his death, Jesus “breathes out the Spirit” back into humanity, the Spirit lost by sin. And as the Spirit returns to humanity, his presence burns like a fire within, dispelling the sin and installing the fire of divine love in one fell swoop. Alienation is replaced by communion.
And so, when we were baptised, we were baptised in the Holy Spirit and fire, or, in the Holy Spirit of fire, who is fire. It is the same fire of which Jesus spoke when he said, “I have come to bring fire to the earth and how I wish it were blazing already!” You hear in the voice of Jesus the divine impatience to have us back, to cancel our alienation from him, to liberate us from sin and death.
So, let me ask you as I ask myself: are you still on fire with the Spirit? Are you on fire for God?
As I said last week, I cannot help thinking that our Church has become a damp squib. The bonfire of divine life and love has shrunk to that little peep of a pilot-light flame in your gas cooker. It’s as if we no longer know who we are as Church, what we are for. Everything related to the life of faith has become something to moan about. There is indifference to the sacraments, apparently with the exception of the Eucharist, but even there, I wonder. Just as first communion has so often become a social event, a status symbol even, with little or no real faith in the hearts of parents, I often think that not everyone who receives the Eucharist does so for any greater reason than it “looking good.” God forbid that you tell people anything of the majestic mystery that it holds or the radical demands it makes on your moral and spiritual life! It’s as if a priest who tries to do that today is to be shouted or criticised down for upsetting the new orthodoxy: “I’m alright, so I can get communion. I get communion, so I’m alright” … without a thought for the Cross, for the sacredness, for the utter fullness of divine humility it signifies.
Baptism is often treated in the same line of socially acceptable orthodoxy. Marriage, too, whenever it actually happens (one day I will give you the statistics!). The one sacrament we don’t want to hear of AT ALL is confession. The thing with confession is it calls your bluff. Dressed up to the ninety-nines for the child’s first communion, with the best looks and odours available, but if you ask a sceptical parent to take a look, really take a look, inside their soul, it’s as if a brick wall suddenly appears, reinforced with concrete and iron, and built as high as the stratosphere. We can pretend all we like and run away all we like, but if we cannot face our own conscience with honesty and spit out the sin we find there, the rest is reduced to empty show. And indeed, the Sunday after first communion, how many of the children do we see again? One boy in a far-away country said to me, “O, dad said we had to go shopping.” I ask you! Even the pilot-light had gone out already!
It’s not fair, of course, to focus just on the sacraments. We have become so used to compromise with our easy and oft sinful culture; we cultivate, it seems, a studied mediocrity. Religion and morality are okay if they fit. The criterion of evaluation is no longer the religious and moral but the fashion, the spirit abroad in our day. The western world draws our horizons downwards, to the inner-worldly, or the immanent. We are stuffed in our senses and hybrid intellects with self-praising and self-satisfying standards. Sometimes I wonder if our very acts of humanitarian concern are only politically correct because they make us feel good. If we were actually asked to establish a friendship with one of the poor ….!
But the human being suffocates and paralyzes himself if he remains at what is essentially the self-referential level. It is like someone who eats and eats so much that they can’t move. The very things they enjoyed in the end kill them. True human dignity and value can only flourish in seeking at least the other for his or her own sake, and not as a pawn in my self-congratulatory mind-games. More importantly, the fulfilment of the human person is found not in horizontal and immanent horizons but in transcendent and vertical ones. In Christ, transcendence and the vertical have come to meet us in person and Christ has done it in a horizontal and immanent way, so that we can have access to him. That’s what the incarnation of Jesus is all about. He gives transcendence to our immanence, that is, he raises up the smallest and biggest acts of good that we perform to share in the life of God.
What are the sacraments if not grace (the transcendent) working in and through nature (the immanent)? And what is their purpose if not to give eternal value to our created world? Grace takes nature and infuses it with the fire of the Spirit and so makes nature achieve its true destiny. No human body was created to rot in the grave. No act of genuine selfless love is destined to be lost in the “dustbin of history.” No human person who has every lived, be it for one second or for a hundred years, is destined to pass like a drop of rain or a shadow passing by.
So, we need to get the fire back in our belly, in our souls, in our lives. Apathy, indifference, mediocrity, lackadaisicalness, settling for the most convenient or the quickest, etc.: these are not worthy of our humanity even as they are sadly all too typical. Certainly, we all move at different paces, we all have different rhythms, but some kind of pace and rhythm we need! Rome wasn’t built in a day: true, but it was built! There can be a tendency to use clichés to avoid doing anything and even desiring to do anything. The fire of the Spirit does not want everyone to be the same. We are not all John the Baptist or Joan of Arc. But we are all called to respond to the fire, to enkindle it, to keep it ablaze.
Where can we source again the fire of our baptism? Where is it guaranteed that that self-same fire will again cleanse and inflame us? Hear these two formulae and you will know the answer: “I baptise you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”; and “I absolve you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
So, here is my challenge to you and to me. Let the darkness of these winter days be a sign from the Lord for us to look at the darkness within. To do it with his help, in his presence, supported by his love and his word. To look, albeit with pain, yet with compassion on our own personal sins. To bring them to the confessional with the burning desire to hear those omnipotent words of release, of liberation and of deliverance: “I absolve you from ALL your sins …” To weep for both sorrow and joy: sorrow for what was done, joy for what is now being done. To feel and know your deepest being flooded by the fire and grace and deep consolation and peace of the Spirit of God. To rediscover, maybe after years, the lightness, the freedom, the agility of soul, now forgiven, healed and redeemed once more.
Then, by all means, get the glitter and lights on, and see in them the light and joy and colour and, why not, the merriment that grace has restored to your dear, dear soul, to your beloved and cherished heart. And on Christmas Day, look with utter tenderness at that mild and humble child who came for that very reason, that you would know His joy! Kiss him whose whole and sole intent is to kiss your soul and breathe into your heart the very life of God.