A Place for Fire

Second Sunday in Advent: Isaiah 11:1-10, Romans 15:4-9, Matthew 3:1-12.

It is not in fashion to bring up damnation as a part of our religion. Heck, people look at you like you’re a superstitious nut if you mention Satan. The decades after Vatican II in America attempted to make Mass more “engaging,” and the catechism of both children and adults in the past 50 years … well, it softened, for lack of a better word. In a recent discussion with our first year Lay Dominican inquirers, several of us shared stories of priests we knew in our childhood telling people that more strict matters of doctrine and moral teaching were optional (or at least they would turn their heads and ignore it). Lest we think this is just anecdotal evidence, a recent Pew research poll asking if you could go to heaven if you don’t believe in God showed that 45% of non-Catholic Christians said yes to this prompt while 68% of Catholics said yes. Heaven without believing in God! Worse yet, a full 10% of the Catholics surveyed said they don’t believe in heaven (!!). What’s more, 26% of these Catholics don’t believe in hell. 

Mosaic depiction of Satan in Hell, Baptistery of Saint John in Florence, Italy (1260-75) | Image courtesy Holly Hayes on Flickr. More on this image below, at the end of the reflection.

These are fundamental aspects of our faith. Christ didn’t come to earth to start a feel-good-about-yourself community of do-gooders. If we deny the whole point of our faith – going to heaven to be in union with God – then there is no point in calling ourselves Christian. Let’s put this another (more positive) way: if we believe in Jesus Christ, it would do good to listen to what he promises us: heaven for those who walk in his Way, hell for those who don’t. This is reality for eternity, of course, which might be the very thing that people don’t want to come to grips with. 

Why bring this up now, in cosy, rosy Advent of all times? Well, I’m just following the Lectionary here. Today’s readings give us the same first reading from Isaiah that we encountered on Tuesday of week one, paired with Matthew’s introduction of St. John the Baptist. I reflected on much of the Isaiah reading on Tuesday, but I’d like to focus on two other lines from this passage today: “He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.” Isaiah is, of course, referring to the Anointed One, the shoot from the stump of Jesse, Jesus Christ. In the midst of passages that glow about his wisdom, fear of the Lord, and faithfulness, Isaiah puts in these lines about striking the ruthless and slaying the wicked. If these lines seem out of place, then we are just ignorant of God’s plan. 

The key word that unites these concepts of peace and retribution occurs in the very next line: “Justice shall be the band around his waist.” God’s justice is that the pure of heart are rewarded while the wicked are punished. Both of these, reward and punishment, are part of God’s promise to His People. We can’t choose to ignore this.

Thus, the line after this also follows logically: “and faithfulness a belt upon his hips.” The Messiah is, above all, faithful to the Lord whom he loves and fears. It is faithfulness to the Father’s will that makes the distribution of justice happen. Aren’t these great qualities, justice and faithfulness? Then why do I still sense some Catholics squirming with uneasiness at these words?

This was always the job of the prophesied Messiah: to bring peace and justice. Why have we skewed so far towards the peaceful Lamb of God rather than the Lord of Justice in our modern age? What is it about divine justice and retribution that disturbs us? Perhaps it is because we have ingrained in ourselves a very correct Christian morality of upholding life, not harming others, not judging others. This is good! But let’s not apply the rules of the servants to the master. It’s like ants in a little plastic ant farm looking out at the human caring for them and saying, wait, why aren’t you rooting around in sand? What has been given to us for our own good is not for us to turn around and try to apply to God.

Last Judgement, Giotto (1306) | Creative Commons, courtesy Wikimedia. The Last Judgment at the Arena Chapel (Cappella Scrovegni), in Padua. Christ in Majesty is surrounded by a rainbow mandorla and angels, flanked by the Apostles. The Heavenly Host is above, while the saved and the damned are shown below, rising to Heaven or being dragged to Hell. What would our faith be without Christ as rightful judge at the Last Judgement? We can’t excise this from our beliefs and still call ourselves Catholics.

In fact, God is the only rightful judge. It is His rightful role. To tell Him not to judge is like telling a fish not to swim. It is what He was always meant to do. Instead of fretting over this, we should thank Him endlessly for His love and mercy (and for being God, because only the one who knows us better than we know ourselves would be qualified to be our judge). So, why be uneasy with the fact that the just judge will come to dispense justice?

Maybe it’s because we think the punishment doesn’t suit the crime (amateur, unqualified mini judges that we are). We might argue that just because someone does some bad stuff here on earth, that doesn’t merit eternal damnation, without parole! Apart from the fact that we’re breaking rule #1 (it’s not our place to judge or weigh merit), there are two problems with this line of reasoning. First, we have forgotten that actions in this life have consequences beyond the immediate ones. Think of the butterfly effect. On a physical level, a drunk driving accident that paralyzes a person impacts them and their family and acquaintances for generations, far beyond what we could know or anticipate. A worse crime might occur on a spiritual level, where our sins might spiritually cripple someone, even cause them to turn from God and lose their own salvation. This is a grave crime indeed.

Second, and related, we misunderstand what type of beings we are, having a body, mind, and soul. This makes us believe a weird version of the Las Vegas slogan, “what happens on earth stays on earth.” In fact, what we do on earth has impact in the afterlife, precisely because our soul is irrevocably wrapped up in the actions of our mind and body. Our soul receives the stain when we sin with our body. God has given us a physical life here as well as a greater life that our soul is already a part of, even while we’re here on earth. Thus, our eternal soul is committing crimes that resonate in eternity while we are here on earth. Even to our limited rational mind and logic, the punishment suits the crime.

The scarier part here is that atheists and others who don’t take heaven and hell seriously are not exempt from justice and punishment just because they mistakenly choose to stick their heads in the sand about the whole matter. They are committing crimes in eternity without even accepting the moral teaching that would help them avoid sin and repent for the ones they have committed. We should have pity on them. This is why the salvation of souls is such an important goal for Dominicans (and all Christians), and something that will always be needed.

So, can we Catholics accept the fact that God, our just judge, will come to both reward and punish?

No? You say God is love and he would never punish because that’s evil? Ho, ho – one final objection to overcome. I won’t dwell on the fact that we are in no place to dictate what God can’t do (humility, people!) and that we live in faith, meaning in the totality of the faith and revelation that has been handed down to us (including the bits about divine retribution). Instead, I’ll attempt the more rational, logical argument again (following Aquinas’s lead). The point that God is pure love and goodness is the very proof that punishment and banishment to Gehenna must happen. Pure goodness cannot exist alongside evil. That would be impossible, like trying to make oil become part of water. God’s goodness is like a white hot, purifying flame, and those who have been tested in the fire during life, like gold purified from slag, will glory in the pure flame of God’s love (this is reward). Meanwhile, those who have remained slag, or perhaps piled on more muck that they created themselves, will smoke and burn and writhe in the presence of God’s love.

Perhaps this is hell, the burning out. Perhaps it is a place in the underworld. I don’t know. But what I know is the promise, in the words of Jesus Christ: 

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness … You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?  (Mt 23:27,28, 33).

All of this is to get us to the point of understanding St. John the Baptist, who makes his appearance every Advent as we contemplate the coming of Jesus Christ. I love John. What a figure! The final prophet, the bridge between the old covenant and the new, the voice crying out in the wilderness. In our reverence of this saint, however, let’s not lose sight of just what a wild figure he was. “John wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.” This is not normal – not now, not then. Setting the fashion for centuries’ worth of desert ascetics to come wasn’t his only standout quality, though. He was a true fire and brimstone preacher. These, history tells us, were more common. But John was seriously famous and a huge draw for Jews. Something was different with him and his message. 

Altar Frontal from Gésera, Spain (1200s) depicting John the Baptist preaching in the desert, surrounded by wild animals | Image from Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona.

We are told that his message was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” This is something that Jesus would echo throughout his ministry, too. So, after God spent centuries preparing His People to develop their faith, culminating in the woman who would bear God as the Ark of the New Covenant, John spends these last moments before Jesus begins his ministry by preparing the people to bear the Word in the Flesh in their hearts. 

John and Jesus also share a fondness for calling out the Pharisees in specific terms: “When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?'” We cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that John and Jesus’s message was one of preparing for the Final Judgement, the “coming wrath.” This Sunday’s readings put this uncomfortable fact front and center. Advent is about preparing for Jesus, and that preparation has very, very serious stakes involved.

Just consider how central fire is to St. John’s short speech about God’s judgment. “Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” Fire consumes the trees that do not bear the fruit for which they were planted. And then: “His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Fire immolates the leftover and useless chaff that was separated from the life-bearing grain. In both instances, fire is the judgement rendered, yes, but let’s also see that fire cleans. It is a way to finalize the harvest season, to reset an ordered existence. 

Fire Blaze, Carol Carter (contemporary) | Image from CCarterWatercolors Etsy page.

So, when John also tells us that Jesus “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire,” we must realize that the cleansing, ordered, perfect fire of God is present with us from the very beginning of our journey to Him. Our baptism is conducted with the grace of the Holy Spirit and the soul-cleansing effect of fire. Fire is there in the beginning and it will be there in the end. There is a place for fire.

After all, there is even fire (in a positive sense, as in baptism), for those who will enter heaven. Being united to the divine glory that is the fiery love and goodness of God, our earthly concerns will be immolated by the great love we will bear in our whole beings, participating fully in that irresistible and never-ending flow of love in the Trinity.

If we are still bugged by the question of how do we feel about a God who judges harshly, then I think we need to contemplate the wild, frightening words of St. John the Baptist. We must take seriously the covenant God has made with us. We must repent for our sins, convert our hearts, and strive with all of our beings to be on the right side of the judgement. And we have to understand that there is a rightful place for fire.  

Christ and the Last Judgement, mosaic in Saint John Baptistery in Florence, Italy (1260-75) | Image is a preview download from Alamy.com. Here we have the fuller composition of the image at the top of this reflection (apologies for the watermarks). Note that the damned in hell are presided over by the council of prophets and angels – in particular, note the wild-haired St. John the Baptist on the far left. This is a good reminder of our doctrine: hell is a sentence that is passed on those who have not “born good fruit” in life and accepted God; it is just and ordered, promised from the beginning. Unlike popular culture conceptions of good and evil fighting it out in an almost-equal battle (think of Star Wars), we condemn that heresy as dualism. Evil and Satan certainly exist, but they serve as part of the crucible of perfecting ourselves in this life and then as the jailers of hell in the afterlife. God has no equal and Jesus has already defeated death and Satan. The other important aspect of this mosaic is that it shows the deep medieval understanding of the important truths of the faith that are inaugurated with baptism. This magnificent Battistero di San Giovanni reveals to the initiates on the inside of its walls in glorious fashion the mysteries of our faith, including the fact that they are being baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire. They are being brought into the faith that promises a Final Judgement by fire from the very beginning.


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