Friday, June 9, 2017

The Burning Boulder

Being embraced by the arms of the Holy Spirit

John 7:37-39 
On the last and greatest day of the feast, Jesus stood up and exclaimed, "Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink. As Scripture says: Rivers of living water will flow from within him who believes in me." He said this in reference to the Spirit that those who came to believe in him were to receive. There was, of course, no Spirit yet, because Jesus had not yet been glorified.

           Two of the great Scriptural symbols of the Holy Spirit are “water” and “fire.” These two elements of water and fire speak especially loudly in a funeral Mass. Recently, I explained to some altar servers before a funeral: “I’ll need the holy water at the beginning, and the incense (fire) at the end. Now, to help you remember that, just think how we begin and end our Christian life. We begin with baptism in water and end in the fires of purgatory.” The altar servers eyes became round as saucers, and I quickly added, “I’m just kidding! I’m sure you’ll go straight to heaven.” Those poor kids are traumatized for life, but some traumas are good for the soul, if they’re caused by the Holy Spirit.

            I’ll never forget when I saw how fire and water can work together like a one-two punch; they are a formidable force. About 20 years ago I went to Honduras on a mission trip. One of our projects was to install a septic tank for the local hospital. Don’t ask what they used before the septic tank. Since they didn’t have any power equipment, the dug with shovels and hoes and picks a huge hole about 20 feet deep, 20 feet wide and 20 feet long. But in the middle of the hole was a huge rock about 8 feet in diameter. There was no way to haul it out of the hole and their tools were ineffective against the rock. You’ll be amazed at their solution. They started by digging around the base of the boulder and brought in wood from nearby trees and shrubs. They arranged the wood around the base of the rock and started a blazing fire. After the fire had heated the rock almost to the point where it was glowing red with heat, they brought buckets of cold sea water and splashed it on the burning boulder. Can you guess what happened to the rock? The clash of heat and cold cracked the seemingly impregnable rock into a hundred small pieces, which the people carried out with ease. And that’s how fire and water of the Holy Spirit work throughout our lives: cracking our hard hearts and hard heads, so God’s love can break through.

             In the gospel reading, Jesus describes the first of the these two symbols of the Holy Spirit, namely, the water. Our Lord declares: “Rivers of living water will flow from within him who believes in me.” And in case you didn’t catch the cause of the water, John makes Jesus’ meaning plain, adding: “He said this in reference to the Spirit that those who came to believe in him were to receive.” In other words, one of the primary symbols of the Holy Spirit in Scripture is “water.” In fact, every time you hear a reference to the spiritual meaning of water in the Old or New Testament it’s almost always a reference to the Holy Spirit. Read the Bible with that in mind, and you’ll get a lot of surplus value in the Scriptures.

             Secondly, have you ever noticed the magnificent stained-glass window above the north entry of the church? You’ve probably noticed it while the deacons were preaching some Sunday. (Just kidding.) Look closely at what hovers above the heads of Mother Mary and the eleven apostles. They are flames of fire. The Acts of the Apostles recounts what occurred on the day of Pentecost when the apostles were set on fire with the Spirit, ready to live and even die for Jesus. Like the fire and water burst the boulder in Honduras, so the fire and water of the Spirit bursts the fear in the apostles’ hearts and filled them with faith.

            Let me give you some modern examples of how the Holy Spirit – as holy water and sacred fire – crack open impregnable boulders to build up the kingdom. You can catch the work of the Spirit in every sacrament: baptism, Eucharist, confirmation, confessions, anointing of the sick, marriage and holy orders. At one point in each sacrament the minister will extend his hands over “the matter” of the sacraments – over the water or over bread and wine or over the sinner. That moment is called the “epiclesis” which is Greek and means “invocation” or “calling down from on high.” At that moment, the Holy Spirit descends on the elements, like fire and water, and breaks them open so God’s grace and burst forth into the world. At every epiclesis, remember how the Honduras burst that boulder.

             Another example is with people who have hard heads or hard hearts. Do you know anyone who’s especially stubborn or so set in their ways that it seems they’ll never change? I hate to mention this but sometimes it’s former Catholics who become the most virulent anti-Catholics. Do you have anyone in your family who has left the church and can’t stand to talk about Catholicism? After all, Martin Luther, who launched the Protestant Reformation, was a former Catholic monk. But no one is beyond God’s grace and returning to the Church. Fr. Benedict Groeschel, who has passed away recently, said he prays every day that the singer Madonna will change her life and become a cloistered Carmelite nun. Invoke the Holy Spirit on those you think may never change, and remember how the Hondurans burst that boulder.

           And lastly, I am convinced that the hardest head of all is the one that looks back in the mirror every morning when you brush your teeth or comb your hair. Why? Well, because are often blind to the boulders of our own sins. Psalm 19:12 states: “But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults.” In other words, there’s a “hidden hardness” inside of us that’s invisible to our eyes. That’s why it takes our whole life for the fire and water of the Holy Spirit to burst that boulder inside of us, like fire and water did in Honduras.

              Let me conclude with the words of Pope Francis, who said: “Christian identity, as the baptismal embrace which the Father gave us when we were little ones, makes us desire, as prodigal children…yet another embrace, that of the merciful Father who awaits us in glory” (Evengelii gaudium, 144). That’s basically what I was telling those altar servers: our lives are lived between these two great “embraces” – the water of baptism and the fires of purgatory. Water and Fire are like the two arms of the Holy Spirit, who hugs us tightly until he burst the boulder of our pride.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

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