The City of Angels is burning. We watch thousands of people as they watch everything they own in the world go up in flames, completely torched, nothing left but dust and ashes.
Watching the fires burn in the darkness recalls two very strange passages in Scripture, both of which say the same thing: “Our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:29, Deuteronomy 4:24).
Now, why would St. Paul ask us to think of God in this way?
Worse, how could a Catholic living in Los Angeles, a Christian who just lost everything he owns, respond with love to a God who depicts Himself like this? Many Catholics in the City of Angels, faced with those words, might very well join their voices with Peter, “Lord, this is a hard saying. Who can accept it?” (John 6:60).
Worse, though we may not much like the image, it doesn’t go away: “I indeed baptize you with water; but there shall come one mightier that I… he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire!” “I am come to cast fire on the earth; and would that it were already kindled!?”
“If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.”
Thus, “The people who sit in darkness have seen a great light.” “Christ is the light of the world.” “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness does not comprehend it.”
Truly, we often don’t comprehend it. The name “seraphim”, the name borne by the angels closest to God, means “the burning ones.” Los Angeles has become The Seraphim.
And whether you love it or hate it, think it heaven or hell, it doesn't matter.
Hell is fire, Purgatory is fire, Heaven is, apparently, fire.
What is up with that? What happened to that kind and gentle Jesus Whose arms our children are always snuggling into?
Scripture tells us.
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” (Romans 12:19-21)
When we do kindness to others, we burn up something within them. Either the kindness burns up their hatred of us, their hatred of God, so that nothing is left of this hatred, or their hatred is stoked to greater fury. They hate us even more because of the kindness we have shown.
As we stare into the flames, we are enlightened. Hatred and love both burn up something within us – the first burns away our affections for others, our charity, the second burns away our affections for ourselves, our selfishness. There is something in us that needs to be destroyed, and only fire can do it. Deep within our hearts, Satan’s hatred struggles against God’s love. God fights fire with fire.
So, as we watch the videos of the fire, the answer is before us. What happens to an apple when you cut it and leave it on the table? Its flesh turns from pearly white to a dark brown – the oxygen in the air burns and darkens it. What is rust, but the “burning”, the slow oxidation, of metal? The fire that consumes the logs in my fireplace or the beams of my house is a rapid version of what happens to the apple and the metal.
Fire can rust or burnish.
The things of this world pass away. Nothing in this world lasts forever, for the moth shall eat them up as a garment: and the grub shall consume them as wool: but, says the Lord, my salvation shall be for ever, and my justice from generation to generation.
We are not made for a five bedroom, four bath palace with an ocean view.
We are not made for a one bedroom, one bath mobile home in a trailer park.
We are made for God – without Him, nothing makes sense, nothing satisfies. He alone is three Persons in perfect communion.
We are persons made in His image. Human persons are made for communion with both persons and Persons.
We cannot commune with flat-screen TVs, fast computers or even nature itself. We may see in each of these, as through a glass, darkly, the image of the persons who created each. It may be that the television, the computer, even the world, somehow dimly reflect or tell the glory of their creators, but these are not enough.
We are made for eternity, not for loss. When we experience the loss of created things, we remember that this was not the original goal anyway. Though the fire burns through the night, at the rising of the sun, we can look beyond the smoldering ashes and say, “See! He has made all things new!”
Leave the flickering TV, the glowing computer screen behind.
Light a candle in the darkness.
Visit Jesus in the Eucharist.
He took flesh for you, you were made for Him.
You were made for Fire.
"In this we rejoice, though now for a little while we may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of our faith, more precious than gold which, though perishable, is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ."
Steve Kellmeyer is the author of Sex and the Sacred City.