“You duped me, O LORD, and I let myself be duped.” If anyone ever fears to address the Lord openly and honestly, let him observe the words of the prophet Jeremiah, who speaks to the Lord extraordinarily candidly. Jeremiah is not happy. He decries the Lord for duping him because he is embarrassed. He has followed the Lord’s invitation to become His prophet, to speak boldly to the people of Israel. But they have not accepted him, which is why he says, “the word of the Lord has brought me derision and reproach all the day.”
How many times has each of us experienced this as well? How many times have we experienced the scorn of the world for spreading the message of the Gospel? If we are truly following our call as Christians, probably many times. At the same time, though, Jeremiah knows that he does not have any other option. He tries to refrain from speaking about God, but he knows that he just cannot contain himself. “I say to myself, ‘I will not mention him,’ I will speak in his name no more. But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.”
This image of the burning heart is a common one. St. Augustine is often depicted holding a burning heart in his hand, reminding us of his famous quotation, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, oh Lord.” St. Augustine saw through a life of sin to a fundamental desire in his heart for something more, for a God of reason and of infinite love. The burning heart makes its way into popular music as well. The climactic sequence of Rocky IV rings to the tune of Survivor’s pop anthem, “Burning Heart,” and, more recently, Adele croons, “There’s a fire burning in my heart, reaching a fever pitch and it’s bringing me out the dark” (never mind the grammatical senselessness of that last phrase). There is something here, though, in Jeremiah’s burning heart that is deeper than “Rolling in the Deep” (which, unfortunately, is more about revenge than about the fire of love).
So what can we do, then, to have this fire of God’s love with which the prophet Jeremiah’s heart was burning? I remember a particularly poignant confession I made when I was early on in my seminary studies with a wise, elderly priest. Actually, I don’t remember anything I confessed (at a certain point many of us eventually come to the realization that evil is rather boring than scintillating, and therefore not really worth remembering), but I remember the extraordinary comment than my confessor made to me: “It is time to take the ember of love that is in your heart and fan it into a brightly burning flame.”
That was a piece of confession advice that hurt. An ember of love for God – that’s all I get credit for? After I prayed a bit more about his advice, though, I realized that he was right. And he is still right. Compared to the love of God present in the heart of Jeremiah, I still have a long way to go. So what can we do to fan that ember into flame?
The first step is knowing that the ember is there, and recognizing it before God. We should recall frequently that God has given us a pledge of eternal life in our Baptism and has renewed His promise of fidelity to us each and every time that we receive Holy Communion in a state of grace. Baptism changed our souls – it made us different. Baptism is not just a cute ceremony by which we acknowledge an important life event for a family. No, it is an extremely dramatic moment at which we ought to stand with awe, wonder, and mystery as we marvel at the prodigious works of God. A child who has been baptized has been forever marked by God and given a spiritual power, an inextinguishable ember of God’s love in her heart.
Those who are familiar with campfires will know that fanning an ember does little good unless there is fuel on the fire. Without fuel, that is, without other wood, the increased supply of oxygen from the falling will make the ember glow brightly and might even start flaming again, but it will not stay lit for very long. When I was a Boy Scout, I remember how we would keep a single fire going for an entire weekend campout. When we woke in the morning, we would dig through the ashes to find the hot coals, and then gather twigs and sticks to place around the embers as we fanned them up. The twigs would catch, and then we would add bigger and bigger pieces of wood until the fire was big enough the heat the big griddle upon which we would soon be cooking about five pounds of bacon. Now that was motivation for getting the fire going!
Our spiritual fire needs fuel as well. We can get ourselves excited by going on a retreat or having a deep experience of prayer, but then what happens next? The fuel in our spiritual lives is our ongoing formation. It is the spiritual reading that we do, listening to Catholic radio, downloading Catholic podcasts, participating in parish apostolates. It is also the time we spend in prayer. The time we give to the Lord for our prayer is the fuel for that ember of love that is in all of our hearts thanks to our Baptism. Having a regular prayer life means, at a minimum: making a morning offering, by which we offer our day to the Lord, with all of our prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of the day; making time for some devotion during the day, such as a visit to the Blessed Sacrament in church, or praying the rosary (or a part of the rosary); and then making an examination conscience in the evening, by which we give all of our successes and failures over to the Lord and rejoice in His mercy. This is the fuel that will sustain that ember of love as a blazing fire, capable of providing the warmth and light of God’s love to our lives and to the lives of all those around us.
The final thing that we need to have this burning fire of love is that fan that will help that ember of love leap into a flame. We need to surround ourselves with constant reminders of what makes us joyful to be Catholics. We need to cultivate a spirit of joy about our faith that attracts others, like the way that a roaring fire on a cool fall evening attracts those who desire to warm themselves in its heat and light. To do this, you need to surround yourself with others who take the Faith seriously and have a passionate love for God. If you do not already have those kinds of people in your life – find them and surround yourselves with them! To be a committed Catholic in the year 2017 requires a serious, intentional effort to surround ourselves with good influences. There are many people right here in this parish who also take the faith seriously and want to grow. Reach out to them – say hi after Mass, start a conversation. Look for people at church who have children the same age as your children and have them over for a cookout.
Speaking of which, you need to make sure the same thing is true for your children as well. They need to have friends who are also Catholic and come from families that make the Faith a priority. This is why it is of such great benefit to send your children to Catholic school and have them participate in our parish’s youth ministry. They will not do it – usually – without a lot of encouragement from you. Make it a priority. (6:30 p.m. on Wednesday evenings)
The most effective fan for a fire, though, isn’t a folded piece of newspaper like we used on our Boy Scout campouts, but the wind. When the little flame that has been coaxed out of the ember and is starting to burn the twigs, and then the sticks, and then the small logs that will help it grow into a fire, the best thing is for the fire-master to stand back on a windy day and let the wind blow that small flame into action. For the spiritual life, this wind is the Holy Spirit. We must be ready through a life of daily prayer to make ourselves available to the movements of the Holy Spirit. We must be ready for the ways in which He desires us to grow. He made us and knows us even better than we know ourselves. Our daily prayer should echo the words of our Lord: “Not my will, but your will, Father.” In order for your small fire to be blown into a blaze by the wind of the Holy Spirit, you need to pray in such a way that you listen to God’s will rather than focusing on your own. This is when you will start to see true growth in your life because this is what He wants to happen [PAUSE], not just what you want to happen.
As you have heard me say before, and will hear me say again many times, when we open up our lives to the action of the Holy Spirit, we will be different as a result. We should expect and yearn for this change in our lives with the desire of the psalm that we sang today: “My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God.” Holy Mother Church makes clear in Her choice of readings for this Sunday’s Mass that these changes will have radical effects. We read in St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans: “Do not conform yourselves to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.” Christians are to be different, and the work of the Holy Spirit will lead us to leave sin behind and do what is good and pleasing and perfect. The Gospel tells us why this matters: “The Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay all according to his conduct.”
My brothers and sisters in Christ, our eternal destiny is at stake. Our Lord says, “I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!” A small ember of faith will not be enough to keep our hearts aglow. In the world in which we live, mediocrity is not an option! On a cold evening in the depths of winter, what good is a small ember, a little fire? None – it is the lukewarm water that our Lord will spew from His mouth as He tells us in the Book of Revelation. If our fire of faith is to survive there is only one choice – it must be a bonfire burning bright, attracting the wayward of this world with the joy that radiates from a life lived passionately in love with Christ and His Church. It is time to fan the ember of our love for God into a bright and burning flame.