I recently read this article about a priest who recounts his visit to a sick man in the hospital. He went to the hospital many times and would sit and talk for an hour or so with the man just to keep him company. In the same room with this sick man was another man, a burn victim, who was severely disfigured from head to foot. Most of his face had been burnt and disfigured. The priest recounted how he tried to avoid looking at this severely burned man. One day, the sick man who the priest was visiting asked the priest if the burned man made him uncomfortable. “You know,” said the priest, “I’m ashamed to say it, but yes. I don’t like looking at the man and his wounds, the wounds are very sickening.” “Would you like to know what happened to him?” Asked the sick man. “Sure” replied the priest.
This man and his wife lived in a house nearby with their four children. One night the house caught fire and the whole family quickly ran outside to escape. The father of the house gathered his family together in the front lawn, but noticed that their youngest daughter, only about two years old, was missing. Frantically, the father ran back into the burning house. No one knew that the youngest daughter was in the house next door. When the fire started and everyone ran out the front door, the young girl went out the back door. The next door neighbor, wanting to protect the child and not seeing the rest of the family, brought the girl inside as she called 911. The father not finding the daughter, stayed in the house looking for her. And he stayed in there. And he stayed in there. And he stayed in there longer. Eventually the roof collapsed on top of him. When the firefighters found him he was so badly burned that they thought he was dead. The doctors say it was a miracle that he lived.
As we know an earthly fire consumes and destroys and disfigures anything in its path but today in our first reading we hear about another type of fire. A heavenly fire and this is a fire that does not consume, or destroy, or disfigure. Moses on Mount Horeb sees fire flaming out of a bush and yet the bush is not destroyed. This fire is the presence of God making himself seen and felt. That bush represents creation; it represents one of God’s own creatures, one of his own creations. And when God comes close the bush is set on fire, but it’s not consumed or destroyed. And the same can be said about us too, when God is close to us nothing of his Earthly creation is destroyed or consumed. God’s presence in us makes us radiant. I’m sure we all know the person who always seems to glow with God’s grace, a person filled with the fruits and gifts of the Holy Spirit. That person has let herself/himself receive the heavenly fire (grace). When we let God come close, when we let Him into our soul, we are made more beautiful, more radiant, more perfect, and more fully ourselves, and like that burning bush we become a source of light for those around us.
Now in our first reading God also tells us, “I am who am” and in this statement He is telling us that He is not just one being among many, but that He is Being Himself, sheer Being itself. There is no category for God he is above all categories. He’s not animal, vegetable, or mineral. He’s infinitely above all these labels. If He were just some being, if we could put a label on God, then He could never come close to us without competing with us. I’m a being and I can’t come near you without violating or competing for your space. A wolf can’t enter into the space of a deer without violating the deer. But because God is beyond, and because God is Being Himself, He can enter into our being without consuming or destroying or competing with us, and in the process of entering our being he makes us radiant.
Now all of this goes against what the modern world is telling us. The world tells us that the more we give to God the less we have for ourselves. Saying no to God is saying yes to me. But this is the exact opposite of what we believe, St. Irenaeus, from the second century, once said, “The glory of God is man and woman fully alive.” Meaning that the more we give glory to God the more we let God into our lives the more fully alive we become. When God comes close to us when we invite him into our hearts 24/7 the more fully alive we become. His grace, his fire, doesn’t consume it only enlightens and makes us free.
Now back to the man rescued from the burning house, that man survived, but from the fire he was left with many physical scars and disfigurements that just couldn’t be fixed with surgery. From outward appearances some may have called him ugly. His soul, however, and his outlook on life is a different story. His soul is filled with heavenly fire and there is no ugliness there, like Jesus he loved until it hurt and to that young girl her father’s wounds are not hideous. After growing up and learning the significance of the scars, she will forever look upon her father and see not ugliness but only see the glory of a total and selfless love. Those wounds that he bears are a permanent physical reminder of his love.
Throughout his pontificate Pope Benedict called us to an authentic and deep personal relationship with Jesus. He’s been quoted as saying many times, “Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away and he gives you everything … Open wide the doors to Christ and you will find true life. “Our Lord is waiting to set us on fire with his grace. This heavenly fire does not destroy but only perfects and gives life. This fire awaits us in the Eucharist; this fire awaits us in the sacrament of reconciliation, waiting to burn away our sins and imperfections revealing the child of God that we truly are. Right now we are in the midst of Lent, a season that gives us the chance to change our minds and our hearts. We don’t have to be afraid of God, the God of the Burning Bush. He wants to set our soul on fire. He wants us all to be fully alive. So go to Him, go to Him often, give Him your heart and soul, let His fire transform you and find a life you never thought possible.
If you are what you should be you will set the world ablaze. St. Catherine of Siena.
Pax et Bonum,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley