Earlier this month, I stood in a Northeast Philadelphia park on a rainy Sunday evening and watched a sight I hope I never witness again: the burning of a church.
A fire had broken out around 5 p.m. at the former St. Leo the Great, and along with parishioners, area residents and other journalists, I stared as flames ravaged (without physically harming anyone, thankfully) what had once been a sacred space. Within the now ruined walls, Christ himself had visited his people — feeding them with his Body and Blood, speaking to them through Scripture, cleansing them of their sins, uniting them in marriage, welcoming them in birth and in death, listening to their prayers. Although the church had been closed and sold, and its sacred objects and art removed, the contours of that place where God and man had met remained, and became scars amid the blaze.
“Everything major in our lives happened here,” one woman told me through tears. “Everything.”
The blaze spread to the old rectory, which a family had purchased a few years earlier and made their home. They huddled under an umbrella in disbelief as firefighters clambered onto the roof, laboring to save the structure.
The onlookers’ anguish was compounded a few days later, when authorities announced the cause of the disaster: arson. Someone had deliberately entered the church and had lit a spark that devastated decades of work and worship in mere minutes.
At once mundane and mysterious, fire can both kill and comfort. Uncontrolled or deliberately misused, it proves deadly; with care and attention, the same flames sustain life, providing warmth and light.
By definition, fire always changes that which it touches, and for this reason it is “one of the most expressive images of the Holy Spirit’s actions,” demonstrating the “transforming energy” of the Third Person of the Trinity (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 696).
God revealed himself to Moses in “fire flaming out of a bush” that was not consumed by the divine blaze (Exodus 3:2). The manifestation is regarded as a symbol of Christ’s virgin birth, and also as “a lovely … expression of the way God relates to the world,” notes Bishop Robert Barron. “The closer God gets, the more we become radiant with his presence. God’s proximity does not mean our destruction or the compromising of our integrity; rather it is the means by which we become fully ourselves.”
Elijah called down fire from heaven at Mount Carmel (1 Kgs 18:36-39), and John the Baptist declared Christ would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Lk 3:16). Jesus affirmed he had come “to set the earth on fire” (Lk 12:49).
In the past year, we have seen many blazes, both righteous and ruinous. Passionate calls to renounce injustice have kindled self-examination and reform. Sadly, however, other fires have scorched the fabric of our communities — some in our streets during agonizing moments of civil unrest, some in heated exchanges of all kinds in a bitterly divided society, some in our battered fields and forests, some in the depths of our seared and searching hearts.
This Pentecost, may the Holy Spirit engulf us in the flames of love and life, reviving that which the world has charred, drying every tear and welding that which is broken in us into a new and glorious whole.
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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