This is my homily for December 13, 2009, Third Sunday of Advent. Feel free to respond with comments. View the Mass readings at: http://www.usccb.org/nab/readings/121309.shtml
[__1.] The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen is happening right now with diplomats and scientists from around the world.
Climate change is big news. And, with winter coming we might consider how we are going to keep warm.
What are our choices in controlling the climate?
The Gospel and Advent season say something about three of our everyday choices:
(one) heavy outer layers
(two) movement to stay warm
(three) heat: find, make, or be near something that will warm up the air around us.
The Gospel reading of today invites us to consider the effects of winter in both a physical and spiritual way.
First, should we choose heavy outer layers? While helping us to feel protected, we are also cautioned that this can cut us off from others.
We are called to give up our layers. This is charity and love. By charity and love, we give up what is valuable. As a result we ourselves become a gift to others. Therefore, John the Baptist says that one who has 2 cloaks should give to the person who has none. But, this may leave us fearing the winter cold, right?
Without the extra layer, let’s go to option number two. Should we keep moving, waving our arms, running, and thus raising our body temperature? This could work. However, during Advent we are also called to stillness, to sit still, to pray, to meditate. And, if I have to sit still, I’m going to feel cold, right?
Without the layers and without the movement, we have a final and third choice. What we could seek is -- a warmer environment. But, how we are going to do this? Will our pursuit of a warmer environment be something that has a long lasting good effects? Or, will it be something dangerous?
That’s the Copenhagen question.
This is what the U.N. is all about. And, I’d like to suggest we could also ask about how we are going to obtain the spiritual energy we need. Where is it going to come from?
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[__2.] John the Baptist is suggesting it will not come from simply wrapping ourselves up in material things or in running around.
I think we need a fire.
John the Baptist speaks in the Gospel about fire. Later in the New Testament, fire gives life to the new Church through tongues of fire on the apostles at Pentecost.
Fire transforms them just as fire can change and purify many things. It is also the fire of marriage and family which can purify many of us. Or, it is the fire of academic work which can make us more focused. Don’t let the fire go out, even during Christmas break.
We need fire to survive in the cold.
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[__3.] In 1908, Jack London, from northern California (Oakland / San Francisco), wrote a classic short story about survival in the wilderness.
In high school, I wandered in the wild myself trying to get through this very short story. It has no dialogue. The story is all narrative with no words spoken out loud. This made it tough for me. But someone suggested I read it again.
The story tells of a solitary man trekking through the Yukon Territory of northwestern Canada. Ultimately, he fails to save himself from the falling temperatures, well below zero. The day starts out at only 50 below, finishes at 75 below.
Ice and fire exist for him. He might have thought global warming was a good thing. He struggles
>> to insulate against the cold with layers
>> to keep moving the in the cold; and
>> to get heat, or as the title summarizes - To Build A Fire.
Out on the Yukon, the story “To Build a Fire” tells of one man’s game of CBS-Survivor. “To Build a Fire” is his goal.
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[__4.] One scholar summarized the story as follows:
“on a single day, an unnamed man walks [with a dog] in seventy-five below temperature [yes – 75 below]. He stops to build a fire and eat lunch [this provides some warmth and refreshment]. He resumes walking. He falls into an icy spring [he gets wet up to the knees which is extremely dangerous in such a frigid climate.] He builds another fire [so as to get warm. But, the second fire is set up beneath that a tree that is snow covered. When the branches are disturbed, the tree deposits its full weight of snow on the fire, obliterating it.] He tries to build a third fire. He fails. He freezes to death.” (Lee Clark Mitchell, Princeton University)
Jack London sketches his traveling-man character this way:
The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances. Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty-odd degrees of frost. Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man's frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man's place in the universe. Fifty degrees below zero stood for a bite of frost that hurt and that must be guarded against by the use of mittens, ear-flaps, warm moccasins, and thick socks. Fifty degrees below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero. That there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that never entered his head. (“J. London, To Build A Fire”)
The significance of 50 below (or 75 below) did not keep him safe at home. He was only concerned about his object, his purpose; and, not about the method, possibilties, or consequences.
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[__5.] Trying to survive at 75 below without shelter, you really have only one choice. The title of the story is your task: to build a fire.
Early in the day, he builds one successfully before the cold really hits him, while his fingers have more dexterity and his mental state is relatively clear.
Five or seven hours later, dexterity and clarity are over. The weather is insurmountable challenge. He chooses the wrong place for his second fire which is extinguished by the snow falling from the tree. And, the third fire just takes way too long.
He is building a fire outside with branches, twigs, external things. And, by the end of the day, the thermometer-reading has dropped so far that nothing “external” can even save him. He cannot simply just move around to warm himself up. In fact, he is becoming paralyzed. He cannot put on more layers. He is already wet.
What he needs is for the heat to reach inside of him, literally and physically. He needs to change his environment. But the fire is so hard to ignite and to kindle.
What he needs is for that heat to reach through his layers, to get his blood flowing, to raise his body temperature. But, it’s too late. For him.
But it’s not too late for us.
The flame we need is not a fire with sulfur matches and wood. The fire we need comes, in fact, from water. It comes from the water of our baptism. This is our spiritual environment.
It is the fire which we breathe in when we pray and enables us to discern winter from spring, benefit from harm, material things from spiritual things, body from soul.
It enables us to discern the true object of our lives.
Sometimes, the object is not what we think it is. It may be to -- give up a layer or a thing which keeps us comfortable. Or – to sit still when we’d rather move.
We need fire to keep warm. This fire is God’s word and salvation. This fire enables us to get our good blood flowing and follow Christ, even under the harshest of conditions. [_END_]