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June 5, 2022

Watch this homily!


     A homily seems almost superfluous today. Look around. This is one day you can see the homily! That great blaze of fire above us, and the tongues of fire at the altar, speak – almost shout – of the Holy Spirit. And you can hear the homily, too, in the beautiful sounds of Pentecost: the organ, the chants, the choral anthems, the congregational hymns. All echo the breath of the God’s Spirit.

     At the great Pentecost moment narrated in the Acts of the Apostles, words did not come first. First came the sound of a mighty wind accompanied by searing tongues of fire which came to rest on each of the apostles. All were “filled with the Holy Spirit,” we were told. And from that moment on, flame fanned into fire, a wildfire that spread, first through that upper room, then out the doors and into the city and throughout the region and, before long, incredibly, throughout the then-known world. Two millennia later, and far from that upper room, the fire goes on and we have been warmed by it. But my Pentecost question for you is this: we have been warmed by it, but have we been fired-up by it?

     I have a little story I like to tell on Pentecost. One day a monk came to his Father Abbot saying, “Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, my little fast, and my little prayer. And, according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my mind of all vain thoughts and my heart of all evil intents. Now, what more should I do?” The Abbot rose up and stretched out his hands toward heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He answered, “My dear brother, why not be totally changed into fire?”
     Why not be totally changed into fire? That’s the right question for Pentecost. The great eighteenth century English evangelist and reformer, John Wesley, founder of Methodism was, by all accounts, a fiery preacher. “I go into the pulpit,” he once said, “and the people watch me burn!” Now there was a man “totally changed into fire!”  A personal aside: I think about Wesley sometimes and wonder what it was about him that burned.  Was it the fire and brimstone he preached, or was it his soul on fire with love of God? I’m quite certain it was the latter, and I often find myself praying that that same fire might burn within me…).

     Why not be totally changed into fire? It’s a scary thought.  Fire quickly gets out of control, fire spreads, it’s all-consuming. It may briefly smolder but all at once it flashes forth and torches everything in its path. Stopping fire can be like catching the wind as those who fight wildfires know so well.

     Why not be totally changed into fire? Pentecost is often called the birthday of the church. Is it the birthday of the church you know and love? Sixty years ago, the great and sainted Pope John XXIII climbed way out on an ecclesiastical limb to convoke the Second Vatican Council, calling it a New Pentecost. John XXIII was not afraid of fire. He was convinced that the Church needed some firing-up, needed some wind and fresh air, and he knew that God would be in the fire speaking in unexpected ways. And he knew, too, that truth was not the monopoly of a few but a divine gift to the many – to all the baptized - a gift discovered in prayerful listening and painstaking dialogue. A tightly regimented and controlled church, he knew, might be a comfortable and orderly church but a church lacking fire, and John XXIII wanted the church to be totally changed into fire!
My friends, we have a way to go, a long way to go before this ancient Pentecost prayer of the church is realized, “Come Holy Spirit!  Fill the hearts of the faithful and enkindle in them the fire of Your love. Send for your Spirit and they shall be created and You will renew the face of the earth!”

      But this renewal we pray for – I think we will be disappointed if we wait for it to come solely from outside - from some decree or pronouncement from on high. The renewal is first of all the inner working of God’s Spirit within us who believe. All of us. This is something those of you who participated in the recent parish Synodal discussions experienced firsthand: that you are the church, a great and sometimes restless and prophetic movement of people baptized into Jesus Christ and anointed with His Spirit, the same Holy Spirit that rested on Jesus at his baptism, burned within him all through his life, led him to the cross, and ultimately raised him from the dead, totally changing him into fire! My friends, that same Holy Spirit now lives in you and me!

     I conclude with some challenging poetry from the great Teilhard de Chardin, Jesuit priest, paleontologist, and theologian who believed that the single driving force behind all of creation was the love of Jesus Christ, and that the Holy Spirit was the divine fire of that love quietly yet insistently renewing the church, renewing the face of the earth.  These are his words.

      Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides, and gravity,
     We shall harness for God the energies of love.
     And then, for the second time in the history of the world,
     We will have discovered FIRE!

     My friends, it is Pentecost. It is time for fire. Why not be totally changed into fire?

Father Michael G. Ryan





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Seattle, Washington  98104
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