water and fire

(fr Cyprian)


We’re wading through Saint Paul’s complicated argument and his shifting anthropology these days in the lectionary. One of my professors used to call the Letter to the Romans “Paul’s Gospel.” And I remember having a very profound experience when I felt like I cracked the code on it in Romans 7. I misread the lectionary and I thought for a few days that I was actually preaching on that chapter today, and was disappointed to realize I was actually stuck with Romans 6––not Romans 5, which I quote all the time, or the explosive Romans 8 with its mystical teaching on prayer and the unity of the cosmos (…all creation is groaning and in agony while we await the redemption of our bodies…), nor the first part of Romans 12 about offering our bodies as a spiritual sacrifice through the renewal of our minds––but boring old Romans 6! But then I found some solace in the responsorial psalm today, taken from Psalm 1.

What got brought up before and set this whole thing up in chapter 5 is this one little phrase, The love of God has been poured into our hearts but the Spirit living in us. This is one of those phrases that turns the gospel inside out and shows us that God is not just an interventionist, coming to us from the outside. That’s also the Scripture quotation that is used as the official entrance antiphon for the feast of Pentecost, the summation of the Easter season­­—not the tongues of flame falling on the heads of disciples but the love of God that is poured into us. What is this all about? What is the Paschal mystery all about? What was the purpose of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection? The whole purpose of these things was o that the love of God would be poured into our hearts by the Spirit living in us (alleluia!). That’s why in Romans Paul can give us that great mystical teaching on prayer, that even if we do not know how to pray as we ought… that very Spirit intercedes in sighs too deep for words (Rm 8:26), groaning inwardly, because the love of God has been poured into our hearts.

So there is an anthropology at work here, a view of who the human person is, and a poetic key too it is in the responsorial psalm, from Psalm 1, the opening of the whole Psalter: those who delight is in the law of the Lord… are like trees planted by streams of water. But where is this law of the Lord? The answer to that is in the next chapter, Romans 7: I delight in the law of God in my inmost self. My inner self agrees with the law of God; my real self agrees with the law of God because the law of God is written in our hearts. That by the way is another argument made in the letter to the Romans, chapter 2, about what we call natural law: When Gentiles who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires… they show that the law is written on their hearts. That’s why we call it “natural law.” It is somehow part of human nature; it’s written into the code of our DNA. It’s like a stream of living water running through the center of our being, and if we would sink our roots deep into the center of our being we would be like a tree planted beside a stream of living water. We need to live our lives with our roots always sinking down into the core of being where the law of God and the love of God are, we who are created in the image of the Logos, as Origen taught.

Then Paul goes on to talk about slavery and freedom. There’s a line from the musical Pippin that has stayed with me as a sort of mantra: “If you’re never tied to anything / you never will be free.” Paul sets up this contrast: Just as you once were slaves to impuritynow present your members as slaves to righteousness. “If you’re never tied to anything / you never will be free,” so make sure that you are tied to the right thing! Anyone who has ever struggled with addiction or compulsion will understand this, and I think that is what most sin really is––not a free choice, but addiction and compulsion. (Again, this is what will come up tomorrow in Romans 7––I do not do what I want to do but what I hate, but it’s not really me who does it but sin that dwells in me…) We think we are free to do whatever we want, but we find along the way that eventually we become enslaved to the things we crave. As they say about dancing with a 600 pound gorilla: You can decide when to start dancing with a 600 pound gorilla, but the gorilla decides when you’re going to stop. What we’re looking for is real freedom, and real freedom only comes from finding the Power-greater-than-ourselves to come to our aid when we can’t break free. The good news is that that Power-greater-than-ourselves is not just “out there” somewhere. God is not just an interventionist. The Power-greater-than-ourselves is at the center of our being; it’s the ground of our being; it’s at the core of our being––the love of God which has been poured into our hearts by the Spirit living in us. Our real deepest truest selves are hidden with Christ in God, the real self which agrees with the law of God, which is the law of love.

One last image, just so that we don’t leave today’s fiery gospel out (Lk 12:49-53). ‘I have come to set the earth on fire and how it wish it were already blazing!’ I can hardly get started on this or I’ll go for another half an hour. Suffice it to say for now that there are all kinds of images for this in dwelling presence of the power of God. Sometimes it is imaged as a breath, like the breath that is blown into the clay that makes it a nephesh–a living being in the second story of the creation of human beings in the book of Genesis. Or sometimes it’s imaged as water, which we might think of as a gentle, lazy, stream running through the land, but remember, it’s also that which Jesus says shall flow from out of the believer’s heart like a stream of life-giving water (Jn 7:38). And sometimes it’s a fire… and not just a tranquil little flame like the oil lamp burning on my altar. It’s a blazing fire that glows in the center of our being, like the Taboric light that transfigured Jesus. And, as Abba Lot of the desert reminds us, if we want we could be all fire!


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