With the Holy Spirit and Fire
By: Rachel Lyons
I wanted to be a firefighter at one point in my life. Really. The desire was somewhere between my preschool hope of being a purple turtle and my middle school dream of being a poet and writer. I was, and still am, fascinated by fire. The way it builds, the way it crackles, the warmth it shares, the colors that dance, the smoke that lifts to the heavens. It is ultimately transformative and doesn’t leave anything how it first found it. I am struck by this Sunday’s gospel story of Jesus’ baptism not because of God’s voice from heaven (though that is powerful and piercing and tender) but rather because of John’s voice to the people. John says he is baptizing with water, but that the one coming after him will baptize us “with the Holy Spirit and fire.” I do not think the author is being redundant here; I pray it is intentional. Yes, the Holy Spirit is to move through us as individuals, but we are also blessed with fire that fuels us, burns within us, and blazes beautifully and prophetically in connection and communion with other souls and with creation. The Spirit can set the fire. We must keep it alive. We have to. So much depends on it, especially in the current darkness we face as a human family.
In my prayer lately, I am asking for light to shine forth (from others and from myself) in the darkness of much pain and brokenness in our world. As we move towards Martin Luther King Jr. Day next week, I am grateful for a church community like Old St. Pat’s that is willing to stand with other people of faith in Chicago and insist that it does not have to be like this. I look forward to being with our Social Justice in Action team, Fr. Tom Hurley, and a hundred Old St. Pat’s members as we ask elected officials for their commitment to justice in our city and state. We can do better than the poverty, systemic racism, homelessness, violence, and fear in our city and in our world. The fire within us tells us so. The fire tells us that our baptism blesses us with the responsibility to take our anger and frustration and hurt about the state of things and to move it towards transformation and positive change. But the fire also nudges us to leave some things behind. The fire invites a purging of what is not serving the freedom of all our brothers and sisters to have good schools, affordable housing, trauma centers, after-school programs, and health care. The fire asks us to let go of voices that say we are better than others, voices that consistently whisper or even shout that people who are poor are always to blame for their situation, rather than the systems that make them poor and make others prosper. The fire is not comfortable. Yet we are drawn to its light and its warmth.
To keep our inner fire burning, we can look to current prophetic voices in our church. One voice for me has been Fr. Bryan Massingale, a Catholic priest and a professor of theology at Marquette University who has written on racism and the Catholic Church and other justice issues.
This is his reflection on King after he struggled with his own prophetic voice and action, as people were asking him to keep quiet on current issues:
“While struggling to answer such questions and deal with such animosity, I reread an often neglected speech King delivered in 1967, in which he justified his opposition to the Vietnam War. King publicly and humbly acknowledged his hesitancy as he contemplated taking a then-unpopular stance. I also reread his account of his prayer life, where he stated: ‘My great prayer is always for God to free me from the paralysis of crippling fear, because I believe that when a person lives with fears of the consequences for his personal life, he can never do anything in terms of lifting the whole of humanity and solving the social problems which we confront in every age and every generation.’ King then became for me more than a revered icon; he became a flesh-and-blood human being who also struggled with fears and anxieties. Yet his deep moral compass would not allow him to remain silent; his profound religious faith propelled him into the risky arena of speech.
Why did King feel compelled to speak out? And why did I? A line from his Vietnam speech jumped out at me: “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” This simple sentence summed up for him-and for me-why he felt it necessary to speak on behalf of those whom he called ‘the Father’s suffering and outcast children.’ The cost of silence is betrayal-the betrayal of one’s convictions, one’s values, one’s beliefs, one’s very self.”
May we find courage in the fire of our baptism to be free from fear, to be true to our faith, to interrupt the silence.
Rachel Lyons is the Director of Social Justice at Old St. Patrick’s Church.