Sunday, December 5, 2010

The "Unquenchable Fire" of Life

Matthew 3:1-12 (today's Gospel from Mass) depicts John the Baptist at his fiery best! The picture painted of John is of a rugged, "rough-and-tumble", "no-holds-barred", "tell-it-like-it-is" type persona. His life is animated and "fired" by the acute awareness that he is preparing the way for the servant of God (Jesus) who will bring an unparalleled experience of God's Kingdom and a corresponding call to enter it. At the end of John's "flash-pan" fiery sermon in the above Gospel, he says, "I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, 
but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. 
I am not worthy to carry his sandals. 
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 
His winnowing fan is in his hand.
 He will clear his threshing floor 
and gather his wheat into his barn, 
but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

The image John depicts for his hearers is the harvesting of wheat during harvest time. After the wheat was collected, it would be brought to a "threshing floor" that was designed to remove the grain from the husk and also to separate it from the tares (false grain). After the threshing process, the stalks and grain were thrown up into the air so that the wind could blow away the unwanted "chaff" and leave the valuable grain (a process called "winnowing." For more information, see, John, of course, was using this imagery as an analogy to describe the mission of God's servant: to separate "wheat from chaff" and gather the wheat (the persons or fruits worthy of the Kingdom) for God. What's interesting about the above Gospel is the image of an "unquenchable fire". This is the point we want to delve into more deeply as it holds the key to understanding the implications of this reading for our lives and world!

John uses fire in two places in the above Gospel, the fire that comes with the Spirit and the fire that burns the chaff. The purpose of the fire in the first sense is to "animate", the purpose in the second is to "separate." This doesn't mean, however, that the two references to fire are necessarily distinct. One interpretation I'd like to suggest is that the fire of the Spirit is both one that animates, bringing life or fuller life, and a fire that burns away the chaff in our lives and world that doesn't accord with God's plan or Kingdom. If we simply look at the stages of human life, we can readily see how, at the heart of authentic human existence, there is the "unquenchable fire" of life just waiting to be lit!

The first "third" of life, that of youthful vigor and vitality, is generally characterized by the "fire of vision." This fire pertains to the forming of ideals and ambitions that drive one to grow, learn, and strive to set and reach goals such as going to college, finding a good job, and having/supporting a family. The second third of life is ideally defined by the "fire of contrition." This fire is lit by the awareness that life is at the midway point and it is likely necessary to make some fundamental adaptations or even to correct course. By "contrition" I don't necessarily mean the word in the strict sense of "sorrow" or "regret", but, rather, the willingness to honestly assess one's life and to make the changes required in order to grow by engaging more fully in relationships and community. The final third of life is driven by the fire of "decision." Meaning, the ultimacy of determining one's legacy: what kind of legacy will one leave in the way of love and having passed on the "unquenchable fire" of life to the next generation?

Admittedly, the above description of the "unquenchable fire" (or fires) of life is certainly idealized and neatly categorized. Many persons may not live long enough to experience each of these fires in the fullest sense. Furthermore, the above "fires" can be experienced at any point in life. However, in general this is a fairly accurate description of the "fire" that is lit within us at varying points in our life. The main, overriding point is that life has it's own "fire" inherently built into it. The key is to allow one's self to experience the fire as much as possible and allow it to bring fullness, wholeness, and holiness. The temptation is to try and "quench" the fire. For example, many persons in our culture try to "snuff out" the fire of mid-life by trying to return to their youth (i.e., having an "extreme makeover", buying a shiny sports car, etc...) What such futile efforts actually produce is simply "chaff" that will ultimately be "burned away." By opening our lives to the illuminating, animating, and guiding fire of the Holy Spirit, we can successfully "pass through" the "unquenchable fire of life" and bear the fruit of a life destined for God's Kingdom, Pat, TOR