Sunday, November 17, 2013

Flame On!

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Sisters and brothers, are you afraid of fire? If you are, you have nothing to be ashamed of. You have every reason to be afraid. For we all know the destructive power of fire. Isn’t this why all our buildings are usually equipped with fire escapes and alarms? With fire extinguishers and sprinklers? We are justifiably afraid of fire. So we prepare for the time when a fire might flare up unexpectedly. Not only that. We also try our best to prevent fires from breaking out in the first place. From a very young age, for example, we have all been taught not to play with fire. Preparation and prevention. These are the two main ways by which we guard ourselves against the destructive effects of fire. But are they the only ways? Is there another? What do you think?

Are you familiar, sisters and brothers, with the Human Torch? Those  who are will know that he’s a superhero. A member of a group of superheroes collectively known as the Fantastic Four. While on a journey into space, this foursome was bombarded by cosmic radiation. Upon their return to earth, they found themselves endowed with superhuman powers. As his name suggests, the Human Torch has the ability to envelop his whole body in fire. Without doing himself any harm. And, whenever he does this, the Torch usually yells out a signature phrase. Do you remember what it is? That’s right. Flame on!

Flame on! That’s what the Human Torch shouts out when he ignites himself. When he transforms himself into fire. Isn’t this, sisters and brothers, a really cool way of guarding yourself against the flames? Not just by preventing a fire from starting. Or preparing to put it out should one flare up. But by actually becoming fire. For, if you are already fire, what do you have to fear from fire itself? So, not just preparation or prevention. But actual ignition. Transformation. Flame on!

I know what you’re probably thinking right now, sisters and brothers. You’re thinking that I’ve been reading too many comic books. Or watching too many movies. Or maybe even suffering from a delusion of some kind. And you may well be right. After all, the Human Torch is but a fantasy. What possible relevance could he have for the often harsh realities of our daily lives? How could someone in his or her right mind expect to survive being enveloped by fire?

And yet, curiously enough, our Mass readings today seem to point us precisely in this apparently delusional direction. You will, no doubt, have noticed that both the first reading and the gospel, speak to us of a day that is coming. A rather strange day. A day of the Lord’s visitation. A day of terror and tragedy. But also a day of safety and salvation. In the first reading, the prophet Malachi describes it in terms of fire. The day is coming now, he proclaims, burning like a furnace. A fire is coming. But notice that the prophet does not tell his listeners to try to prevent this fire. Or even to prepare to put it out. Instead, he seems to assume that the fire will come anyway. How then to safeguard oneself?

To answer this question, we need to consider the curious effects that this fire has on different people. According to the prophet, the arrogant and the evildoers will be like stubble. Like straw. The fire will burn them up. But on those who fear God, those who put God first in their lives, this fire will have the opposite effect. For them, the harsh fiery furnace of God’s coming will turn into a gentle sun of righteousness. Bringing wholeness and healing. Instead of death & destruction.

We see something similar in the gospel too. Here, although there is no explicit mention of a fire breaking out, scripture scholars tell us that St. Luke is writing about the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, at the hands of the Romans, in the year A.D. 70. In the gospel, this terrible event is something that is going to take place in the future. But notice that Jesus focuses not so much on how this destruction can be prevented. Or how preparations can be made to overcome it. Instead, Jesus speaks about how it can be endured. Although many will perish, those who cling to their faith in God, those who remain steadfast to the end, will be saved. Your endurance will win you your lives.

What are we to make of all this, sisters and brothers? What is it about the God-fearers in the first reading, and the faithful disciples in the gospel, that enables them not just to survive, but even to thrive, in the face of terrible suffering? As with every question that life poses to us. Every question that’s worth asking. The answer is found in the life of Christ himself. For, as we well know, Jesus too faced a fiery furnace. He too encountered a day of destruction. When he had to carry a cruel cross. Only to be crucified upon it like a common criminal.

And, because Jesus remained faithful and steadfast to the end, he was crushed but not destroyed. Rather, he was raised to life on the Third Day. How did this come about? How was Jesus preserved in the furnace of suffering? Was it not because he himself was constantly already on fire with the love of his heavenly Father? Even at the tender age of 12, Jesus was able to tell his poor perplexed parents that he had to be in his Father’s house. Doing his Father’s will. And when it came time for his public ministry, Jesus began by first allowing himself to be immersed in the waters of the River Jordan. The waters of our frail human condition. The waters of his Father’s will for him. And, having done so, Jesus experienced himself being engulfed by the fire of the Holy Spirit. Who descended upon him like a dove.

Sisters and brothers, if Jesus was able to thrive in the furnace of adversity, it was only because he was always already aflame with the love of his heavenly Father. Always already engulfed in the fire of the Holy Spirit. And can we not say the same of the people in our readings as well? In the first reading, it is because they are already on fire, that the people are able to continue walking in the ways of God. In the gospel, it is because they are already on fire, that the disciples can be expected to transform their terrible trials into opportunities for bearing witness to Christ. In the second reading, it is because the Thessalonians are already on fire that Paul can encourage them to turn away from idleness, and to work quietly and diligently instead.

To continue burning with the love of God. Sisters and brothers, isn’t this also what we are all invited to keep doing every day of the week? And isn’t this also why we gather here to worship every Sunday? Even as we may have to face the furnace of the inevitable challenges of daily living. We are able to survive and to thrive. To turn painful trials into precious opportunities for bearing witness. Only to the extent that we continue to allow ourselves to be set alight with the love of God. To be transformed by the Holy Spirit into fire itself.

I saw an image of this fire last Friday evening. When we gathered in this church to express our solidarity with the victims of Typhoon Yolanda. A slideshow was screened. In the midst of the many images of terrible suffering. Of pain and anguish. One image caught my eye. It was a picture of a group of people who appeared to be waiting for something. Perhaps for supplies to be distributed. A young woman in this group had her arms wrapped around something to which she was clinging tightly. Almost desperately. It was a large statue of our Blessed Mother. I saw on that woman’s face a quiet determination. A firmness of resolve. A courage and a strength that were signs of a fire burning deep within her. Keeping her going in the midst of her trial.

And what about us? How do we face our trials? Only by prevention and preparation? Or also, most of all, by ignition & transformation. Sisters and brothers, how can we keep shouting flame on today?

1 comment:

  1. O Lord,

    it is only by Your Grace that we can keep steadily on, in the face of trials and challenges in our daily lives.

    It is only with Your Help that we can plod on, even when all odds seem to be up against us and there seems to be no way out....

    Lord, please keep us ever close to You - in times of despair and desolation, teach us to cling on to You - let Your flame in our hearts continue to burn ever so brightly - help us to blaze through all our trials and transcend above all our pains and difficulties .

    Lord, You are the Fire that burns ceaselessly within our hearts - the candle with a wick that cannot be extinguished. You are the Fire which no darkness or pain can ever overcome... for You had triumphed over every evil and every darkness of this world.

    There is no night which does not see the light of day...

    O Lord of the Universe, where fire, heat and light has its Source, please teach us to Flame On and let Your Light shine forever in our hearts. Amen.

    Seeing Is Believing
    17 November 2013