“You’re dead! And you’re dead! And you’re dead! And you’re dead!”
When I was an undergraduate, the bursar at my college decided to carry out an unscheduled fire drill – at 6 o’clock in the morning! Bleary-eyed students pulled on dressing gowns and coats, and made for the exit. As soon as the statutory 2 minutes for evacuation was up, the bursar stood opposite the main doors and greeted each exiting student with a wagging finger and the unsettling words that they were dead!
Today’s Gospel offers us something equally unsettling – a baptism of fire. John had been baptising people with water – the Greek word baptizo meant ‘to plunge in’. He was literally ducking them under the water as a sign that they were ending their old life of sin and rising to something new. But Jesus was to offer us something more – that we would be plunged into fire and into the Holy Spirit.
If Jesus hadn’t died on the Cross, no human being could go to heaven. But because Jesus took on himself the punishment due for every wrong action committed by human beings, the doors of heaven were opened. There’s a famous icon of Jesus pulling Adam and Eve out of their graves, with the gates blocking heaven being kicked down into the void below. I can’t help wondering if the artist who made the logo for the Year of Mercy was thinking of those gates by drawing the two dark blocks under the Lord’s feet.
So we rejoice that the gates of Heaven are open for us, but what is it like to pass through them? The Bible speaks about entering heaven as undergoing a painful experience. Our Lord said it would be like a Master returning unexpectedly to inspect the work of his household servants. And Jesus – our Saviour Jesus, our loving and caring Jesus – once chose a very strong image, and one we might not expect to hear on his lips: the servant who did not do what the Master required is punished by the strokes of a whip! The one given clear instructions receives a severe beating, but even the one who didn’t know what the Master wanted receives a beating, though less severe. What are we to make of this?
Each one of us will stand before God on our judgment day and see the perfect love which is God’s nature. We will compare ourself with this pure love and becomes painfully aware of our own failures to love unselfishly. And for us who were Christians, who heard God’s message preached in church, the pain is even greater, for we will become fully conscious of having ignored, at least in part, the pleas of our loving and heavenly Father.
This pain is real, and the Bible uses different ways to describe it. Jesus uses the image of a beating and of a soul which is “put into prison until it has paid the last penny”. St Paul has written of our life’s work being “tested by fire”. And today I would like to suggest that the baptism by fire promised by Jesus refers to the same thing – that he will purify our souls so that we can go to heaven.
Now that we are in the Year of Mercy, we will hear much talk of the ‘indulgence’ on offer for pilgrims who pass through a Holy Door. But what does this mean? Didn’t indulgences go out with the reformation?
No, they didn’t. An indulgence is, in fact, a baptism of fire.
It seems to me that none of us human beings are perfect, and all of us need to undergo some kind of purification so that we can enter heaven. But perhaps there are different ways that we can be purified. First, imagine that when you die, you meet only Jesus and you see his perfect love for you. You know full well you don’t deserve it. But you accept the gift.
Next, imagine that when you die, you not only meet Jesus but he shows you a vision of everyone on earth who ever prayed for you, saying their prayers for you. Surely this will be even more embarrassing! The more intense the love focussed upon your soul, the more quickly your pain passes, leaving you free to enter the happiness of heaven.
Now the Lord zooms in on a few people who have decided to pray for you by undertaking a special spiritual exercise. You see that a few souls who love you have gone out of their way to travel to a special place of pilgrimage, walk through a Holy Door, attend Mass and go to the sacrament of reconciliation. And all of this they have dedicated for you! Not only that, but the Pope has solemnly asked all the saints already in heaven to notice every time this is done, and offer a special prayer for you. How embarrassing is that?
And that’s the indulgence.
What went wrong in earlier centuries was that the Popes also asked all the saints in heaven to notice and say prayers for you when a benefactor donated money to the church. That meant financial giving got tangled up with spiritual blessings, and looked like you could ‘buy’ a soul’s rapid purification. Nowadays, the Pope doesn’t ask heaven to notice financial gifts – only acts of significant personal sacrifice.
My college bursar wanted to shame us into being as ready as possible to survive a fire. In this Year of Mercy, Pope Francis also wants us to be ready to survive a fire – not on our own but by securing indulgences for those souls already being purified. And as we remember each one in prayer we declare: “You are loved! And you are loved! And you are loved! And you are loved!”
The door of mercy is open. Which soul will you walk through for first?