Saint Justin the Martyr. A man who lived in the early church, back in the time when the Roman's were having Christians fight to death in the Colosseum. A time of persecution and hate. Justin after his conversion began to argue for the Christian faith. Not argue like we argue today, but to logically and systematically debate with others to show them the truth. He won over many souls, and failed to do so with others. Eventually a man, jealous that Justin had beaten him with his logic, reported him to the government and he was martyred for his faith. We still to this day learn the methods of apologetics, that is not saying we are sorry, but rather giving a defense for our faith. "Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope." (1 Peter 3:15)
In the first reading for today we have a glimpse into the mindset of Saint Paul. Paul is being persecuted and in prison, likely to die for his faith. He reminds Timothy to stir into flame that gift which God has given him, that is the Holy Spirit. It reminds me of those early movies in which cave men carried their embers with them from site to site. Someone was in charge of that. It wasn't a new fire that they were creating, but rather they carried the hot coals wrapped in protective sheets from place to place. Rebuilding the fire over and over.. slowly coaxing it back to life with the proper fuel. If they put on the wrong stuff, it would put out the fire. If however, they used the fuel that it needed.. and slowly breathed into the embers, it would roar to life and produce fire.
I lived in a run down house in Virginia. In the basement was this old, rusted out wood stove. When I first moved in there I put in a gas stove, mostly because of all the work it took to keep a wood fire going. Eventually, due to bad money management and silly circumstances, I couldn't afford the propane anymore to heat the house (not that it ever really heated it well.) That winter I collected wood and stored it in the shed. When I would get in from work I'd have to build a new fire. Every day I'd come in from the cold and the fire would be out. It took me most of that winter to learn to bank down the fire, to conserve the hot coals during the day. Then when I got home I'd slowly build it back up. A little tinder. Some soft dry wood. Eventually some heavy, hard woods to burn through the night. It took time to learn how to stir that flame, to get it going without putting it out. It took even more time to learn to be able to keep that flame going during the day. It was so easy to forget to turn down the draft, close the vents and have just enough coal left to keep it going for the many hours I was gone into the world.
Paul reminds us exactly how to do this with that ember burning in our souls. At Baptism we receive the Holy Spirit. The Bible reminds us that the Spirit descended in tongues of flames, transformed the burning bush, and left Moses transformed and glowing that he even had to cover his face. It is through love and self-control that we fan those flames. When we sin, when we give in to our desires at any cost, that's when we begin to smother that light, to push that flame out of existence. It is through saying no to those things which are bad for us, even when we want them so badly, that we slowly feed the fire. A fire that does not harm us, but warms us and glows within us.. eventually glowing so brightly that others see it in us... drawing us to Sainthood. The power of love and self-control. How society wants us to go the other way. To give in to desire, regardless of the consequence. To simply do what you want, and let others do whatever they want.. but Christianity calls self-control a power! How much harder is it to say no than to simply give in? To be in control of yourself?
When we look back to the example left us by Saint Justin we see him reaching out to the world and spreading the Gospel. We can look back at his description of Christian worship in the first hundred years of Christianity and be astounded that he describes the Catholic Mass. For two thousand years we have been worshiping God exactly as the Apostles taught us to do so. The Church has been teaching us that entire time that we must love God and one another, but also that we must have self control. This has been handed on for generation after generation. How then are we challenged to be apologists in the world? How can we exercise that power of love and self-control?
First and foremost by living a Sacramental life. Making frequent reception of the Sacraments a priority. Not something we fit into our schedule once it's full of all the other things, but rather something that goes in first and our schedule fits around. In receiving Christ in the Eucharist, encountering Him in the Confessional and adoring Him in Adoration; we are strengthened by love itself. We come face to face with our own sinfulness and are challenged to do more, to do better. Then we must take that Sacramental presence out into the world and become that presence to those in need. The world is thirsty, it's seeking help. It needs us. That doesn't mean you have to go out and preach on the street corner, though there is nothing wrong with that. What it does mean is that you have to fan those embers, feed them with love and good works, avoiding that which is ungodly and sinful.
This morning I was wondering how I might fan those flames. How can I help the Holy Spirit grow in me by opening myself more fully to Him? I stood in the grocery line waiting to pay. A few people ahead of me stood a woman who was buying some groceries. As they rang her up she ran her card. Once, twice... three times. It was denied. "I just put money in here, what am I going to do?" She was on the verge of tears. I've been there. I've had to have them hold the groceries till I could go home or to the bank to get cash, or even put back things to afford them. I've been without food, and more importantly I know that feeling of draining you get when you realize everyone is looking and hearing. Is it pride? Sure some. It's not a feeling though that I envy or want for anyone else. Out of my mouth I heard the words: "How much is it?" I didn't even mean to say it, it just came out. She said $19 something. I said I got it. I went up and paid for it. The look on her face was worth more than $20. She began to cry. She said you don't know what this means and ran from the building with her two small bags of food.
That's how we fan the flames. By giving in and letting Him speak through us. By being a living Sacrament that shows the Living God. By speaking, acting, loving in the way that Christ would to a world so much in need of that touch. Are you ready to stir that flame? To learn how to keep it burning even when we go out into the world? Do you realize how precious and absolutely necessary it is to protect and guard it to keep it from going out?
His servant and yours,
"He must increase, I must decrease."