Monday, March 14, 2016

God as Fire

As a layman in the pews, I often find myself wondering why the clergy do not preach more often on the symbolic meaning of the rites, gestures, and objects of the liturgy, not to mention the texts (especially the Propers of the Mass — in those fortunate places that utilize the Propers). Since the liturgy is the most obvious common object of perception and meditation for everyone present, it seems both useful and decorous to preach in such a way that the faithful may be led into a deeper understanding of what they are seeing and doing. Admittedly, this could get heavy-handed and risk didactic overload, but at least some of the content of a given liturgy could be brought in — I’m referring here not to the readings, which are what get the lion’s share of attention, but the other elements of the liturgy that take place around the readings, as it were. A sign that this is fair game can be seen in the remarkable amount of patristic and medieval preaching that concerns itself with unpacking the meaning of the liturgy for the faithful.

A good opportunity is rapidly approaching: I refer to the great Easter Vigil with its kindling of the new fire and the lighting of the Paschal candle. We have probably all heard some reference in homilies to fire and light, but it seems to get stuck in generalities, which have the effectiveness of clichés. Why not follow in the footsteps of St. Thomas Aquinas and ponder the deep symbolism behind fire — particularly, the reasons why God Himself is compared with fire? In his Scripture commentaries, the Angelic Doctor frequently comments on why God and His action are compared with fire.
  • At Super Isaiam 33, three reasons are given: fire purges, sets other things aflame, and condemns.
  • At Super Hebraeos 12, lec. 5, where fire is said to have, among sensible things, more nobility, more brightness, more activity, more altitude, and more purifying and consuming power.
  • At Super Isaiam 30, five reasons are given for symbolizing charity as fire: it illuminates, boils up or heats [exestuat], turns things towards itself, makes one ready to act, and draws upwards.
  • Super Ieremiam 5 gives five reasons why the word of the Lord is said to be a fire: it illuminates, sets aflame, penetrates, melts, and consumes the disobedient. 
Such descriptions of fire frequently parallel Thomas’s discussions of the effects of love. For example, in both Scriptum super Sent. III.27.1.1 ad 4 and Summa theologiae I-II.28.5, Thomas speaks of the way in which intense love causes fervor or burning, how it melts or “liquifies” the heart, and how it makes the lover penetrate into the inmost recesses of the beloved. This, indeed, is why extasis or ecstasy (for Aquinas, one of the many effects of love) is so aptly compared with fire, which seems to be ever rising up above itself and disappearing into the air, always tending outwards and upwards. Thomas charmingly notes that it is the custom of lovers to be unable to keep their love silent, but it bursts forth from them because its flames cannot be contained under their breast.[1] And elsewhere: “Burning comes from an abundance of heat; hence the Spirit is called burning, because, owing to an abundance of divine love, the whole man burns up into God.”[2]

The most ample comment on the symbolism of fire for God comes from Thomas's Commentary on Isaiah, chapter 10:
       Take note on those words, and He will be a light to Israel in fire, that our God is called ‘fire’ [for four reasons]. First of all, because it is subtle; and regarding this He is called subtle, [first] as regards substance, for He is called ‘spirit.’ Jn. 4: “God is spirit.” Secondly, as regards knowledge, because He is capable of penetrating. Heb. 4: “The word of the Lord is alive and active, more penetrating than any sword.” Thirdly, as regards appearance, because He is invisible. Job 28: “Whence therefore [is your] wisdom?”, and the same below: “It is hidden from the eyes of all the living.” Or Job 36: “All men [see him, every one beholds from far off],” etc.
       The second reason is that it is bright. Now, that He is bright is evident first from the fact that He makes something manifest to the intellect. Ps. 35: “In your light we shall see light.” Secondly, because He delights the affection. Tob. 5: “what kind of joy is there for me, for I sit in darkness and I do not see the light of heaven?” Thirdly, because He directs one’s acts. Below, c. 60: “The nations shall walk in your light, and the kings in the splendor of your rising.”
       The third reason is that it is hot; and this, first, because He vivifies. Job 39: “you perhaps will warm them in the dust?” Lam. 1: “From above He has sent fire into my bones and has chastised me.” Secondly, because He cleanses. Eccl. 38: “the vapor of the fire wastes his flesh, and He fights with the heat of the furnace.” Thirdly, because He devastates. Dt. 32: “A fire is kindled in my wrath, and shall burn even to the lowest hell.”
       The fourth reason is that it is light; and this, first, on account of motion [towards the end], because “the Lord made everything for the sake of Himself” (Prov. 16). Secondly, on account of His place, because “He dwells in the heights” (Ps. 112). Thirdly, because of His mode of unmixedness. Wis. 7: “[for wisdom is more active than all active things] and reaches everywhere by reason of her purity, for she is a vapor of the power of God [and a certain pure emanation of the glory of the almighty God, and therefore no defiled thing comes into her].”[3]
On this (unofficial) octave day of the feast of St. Thomas, it is good to be reminded again, through such exquisite texts that demonstrate an Augustinian mastery of exegesis and lay out for us a feast of mutually illuminating cross-references, that the Angelic Doctor was, and saw himself as, primarily a commentator on Scripture, a Magister Sacrae Paginae, a teacher of the sacred page. The rest of his eminent intellectual activities flowed from the systematized lectio divina of the schools. This may also suggest a kind of reconciliation between preaching on the lectionary and preaching on the liturgical rites and symbols. In the end, those rites and symbols are themselves rooted in Scripture, and Scripture, in turn, is powerfully illustrated and enacted by them. Expounding the meaning of the liturgy is therefore not opposed to reflecting on the readings but is the essential context for it.

Moses and the Burning Bush (from Notre Dame in Paris)
[1] Super Rom. 8, lec. 7 (Marietti, 127): “Hic enim amantium mos est, ut amorem suum silentio tegere nequeant: sed necessariis suis et charis asserunt et produnt, et flammas suas infra pectus cohibere non possunt. Enarrant ea frequentius, ut ipsa assiduitate narrandi amoris sui solatium capiant, et refrigeria immensi ardoris assumant.”
[2] Super Rom. 12, lec. 2, §988: “Procedit autem fervor ex abundantia caloris, unde fervor spiritus dicitur, quia propter abundantiam divinae dilectionis totus homo fervet in Deum” (Marietti 1:183). At ST I.108.5, Thomas gives as the first reason why the seraphim are named from fire: “Primo quidem, motum, qui est sursum, et qui est continuus. Per quod significatur quod indeclinabiliter moventur in Deum.”
[3] Super Isaiam 10 (28:76.330–63): “Nota super illo uerbo Et erit lumen Israel in ignem, quod Deus noster dicitur ignis primo quia subtilis; et quantum ad hoc dicitur subtilis quantum ad substantiam, quia dicitur spiritus, Io. IV «spiritus est Deus»; secundo quantum ad scientiam, quia penetrabilis, Heb. IV «Viuus est sermo Dei et efficax et penetrabilior omni gladio ancipiti»; tertio quantum ad apparentiam, quia inuisibilis, Iob XXVIII «Vnde ergo sapientia?», et infra eodem «Abscondita est ab oculis omnium uiuentium», uel Iob XXXVIII: «Omnes homines».
Secundo quia lucidus: quod autem sit lucidus, patet primo quia manifestat quantum ad intellectum, Ps. «In lumine tuo uidebimus lumen»; secundo quia delectat quantum ad affectum, Tob. V «quale gaudium est michi, qui in tenebris sedeo et lumen celi non uideo?»; tertio quia dirigit quantum ad actum, infra LX «Ambulabunt gentes in lumine tuo et reges in splendore ortus tui».
Tertio quia calidus: et hoc primo quia uiuificat, Iob XXXIX: «Tu forsitan in puluere calefacies ea?», Tren. I «De excelsis misit ignem in ossibus meis et erudiuit me»; secundo quia purgat, Eccli. XXXVIII «Vapor ignis urit carnes ejus et in calore fornacis concertatur»; tertio quia deuastat, Deut. XXXII «Ignis succensus est in furore meo et ardebit usque ad inferni nouissima».
Quarto quia leuis; et hoc primo propter motum, quia «uniuersa propter semet ipsum operatus est Dominus», Prou. XVI; secundo propter situm, quia «in altis habitat», Ps.; tertio propter incommixtionis modum, Sap. VIII «Attingit autem ubique propter munditiam suam, uapor est enim uirtutis Dei».”

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