Burn, Baby, Burn! The Novena Betwixt Ascension and Pentecost

What does it mean to turn away from our Holy Faith? If anything, it does not mean to ground oneself in the terra firma of the here and now, as if this is opposed to those “ethereal Christians,” those space-cadet types whose head-in-the-cloud concerns distract them with pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by. There may be plenty of folks who fit such a bill, but this is not what makes the bulk of the modern herd truly shudder.

No, to turn from the Sante Fe, in our day, is not to be more grounded in the physical, but instead to recoil, often times in horror, from the concrete thing in all its thingy-ness before us. It is not that the Faith is divorced from reality, but instead that it is often too really real for most. So professed atheist and believer alike turn from the Faith--implicitly or explicitly--because to stick their hands into the open wound of the Church’s side is simply too grisly, too fleshy a prospect to bear. If only it were more dreamlike and detached, perhaps then they would not turn.

Nowhere is this gnarly nature of the Church more evident than Her insistence on the centrality of the Sacraments. Man does not live by bread alone, but he does not understand by airy metaphors alone either.

So for Baptism, an action in which we spiritually die with Christ in His grave so that we may rise with Him in His resurrection, the Church uses water in the rite. Why? Yes, water is life giving and good for washing, but it is also a central reminder both ancient and tangible of mystery and death--a pedigree that spans times, geographies, and cultures unending. Just as much as it evokes cleansing and slaking, it does the same with drowning and sinking, as Christ Himself plunged into the depths of death in His Tomb for our sake. It should be no wonder that babies instinctively cry when dowsed with the stuff, and it is to our detriment as adults that we so easily forget what they reflexively know.

What does this have to do with this intermittent time between the Ascension and Pentecost, the nine days between God ascending and descending from earth to Heaven and back? In these most “spiritual” of feasts, where the Bodily Resurrected Lord goes “to be at the Right Hand of the Father,” and the Spiritus Sanctus comes to dwell among His Church, this matter (wait for it…) of the spirit (…pun totally intended) weighs heavily upon us as we say with the nascent Church the first Novena She ever prayed.

We are likely to think of spiritual things in as airy and fluffy of terms as possible. Indeed, Scripture itself will use wind time and again as an image of all things spiritual (that which we cannot see but feel), words or music (that which we cannot see but can hear), or even birds (sure, they are bodies, but they constantly evade our grasp by riding upon the wind and twerping a song at us while doing so for good measure). It is no wonder that modern man thinks of all things spiritual as he does: weightless, invisible, or worse yet, imaginary.

But to counter this, the Church marshals the fiercest of creatures to stand in for the spirit, in the hope that it begins to put flesh on that which has none: fire.

Fire has always played a terrifying and wondrous role in mankind’s understanding of itself. One needs only look to the myth of Prometheus, or Kipling’s tales of beasts envious of man’s harnessing of the “red flower” to recapture the awe and majesty man ascribes to flame. What else holds such immeasurable potential to wreak havoc and give life than fire? And I do not mean only through forge or hearth—fire controlled. I mean fire in its very act of consumption.   

Perhaps you have seen such a sight: a field of scorched earth, the black ash of formerly aspirating things in vanquished lumps, an indistinguishable mound of devastation. And yet there, thrusting out of its ashen grave, grows a single shoot of electric green, a determined plant reaching for a gasp of air and light. As part of a lawn or meadow, grass is unnoticeable. But as a single blade charged against such a sullen pitch, the blade is a defiant banner declaring this mysterious fact of fire: it may feed off of life, but in doing so, it provides the food for the new life to come. Nature itself is a Phoenix, rising from the ashes.

Moses and the Burning Bush, Illustration from 1890 Holman Bible

Moses and the Burning Bush, Illustration from 1890 Holman Bible

But to what exponential heights such an analogy can take wing if we add an out-of-the-ordinary element to such a flame: imagine a fire that burns, but does not consume that which it enflames. So God shows Himself to Moses in a burning bush that is not eaten by the blaze, and Mary, who held Divinity in her womb and did not perish, is evoked as the New Testament version of the same bush.

In this, a natural mystery completes itself in a supernatural one.  In God, we creatures can be lit with the fire of the I AM, but rather than an eternal cycle of plant returning to ash becoming plant, our lives grow out of the fire simultaneous to its incandescent torch.

Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple and the Virgin of the Burning Bush

Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple and the Virgin of the Burning Bush

And is this not what separates the former proffered images of the spirit from the latter?  While we cannot see the wind or word (and often not even the bird), fire above all things is visible, indeed is uniquely visible, and in the sun, that great ball of fire,  alights the entire world with refulgence. We can smell what has been burned, hear it crackle as it spreads, and feel its electric bite if we are unfortunate enough to brush up against it. We even love tasting things that are charred!

Of all those sacramental signs the Church gives us to understand what spirit is, fire demonstrates that even things spiritual are tangible in a special—or perhaps even fundamental--way. But what fire signifies best of all about the spirit is that neither are capable of being grasped. Both may be harnessed, indeed harnessed to great creative or destructive ends, but to harness them is not to possess them. You can purchase fuel, but you cannot put a price on individuals licks of flame. The ancient charge of simony is a crime that intends to declare similar things with all matters spiritual: the spirit cannot be bought.

So as strange as it may be, both fire and spirit cannot be consumed; things in all their thingy-ness are consumed by them. And thus in this time between the Body of Christ ascending to the Spiritual realm, and the Spirit of God descending to the bodily one, we sit patiently with the Disciples and Mary in the Upper Room, waiting to be consumed by the fire that does not waste away its host. We are preparing to get lit (but not how the kids these days mean it), to be burst into light.

If you want a fire, you cannot simply “obtain” it. First, you must find the kindling, let it dry out, and then hold it to the spark—you can call on fire, but its seems inaccurate to say you “make” it. In this liturgical time, brothers and sisters, may we take the kindling wood of our lives—our hopes, desires, fears—and prepare for the Wind from Heaven to dry them from the heavy moisture of sin. Once He has done so, may He set our souls ablaze for all the world to see, simultaneously being consumed by the all-consuming God, and ever arising out of our ashes. Amen.