David A. Cregan, O.S.A.
Good Counsel Novitiate
Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10
Psalm 40:2, 3, 4, 18
I remember an early morning this spring when I was awoken from a deep sleep by the severe sounds of an approaching storm. There was a tremendous clap of thunder followed by a bright flash of lighting, the intensity of which drew me from my bed instantly and to the window. My immediate reaction was to quickly bless myself, making the sign of the cross, followed expediently by an act of contrition. The violence of the storm combined with the strange light of the morning in these moments just before dawn to frighten me and to wonder if this might be the end of the world! My response to the storm triggered a spontaneous spiritual reaction, readying myself for what might be the end.
So much of our Christian message calls us to be attentive to end times, for our lives are always oriented towards the things of heaven. While we pray for a more just and equitable world in the here and now we also long for our true home, heaven, and pray for lives worthy of the promises of God. Therefore, an awareness of how God will hold each of us accountable in the end must remain a point of reflection in our daily lives, evoking in us a responsibility and perhaps even a little bit of fear about judgment.
This mornings Gospel from Luke is ominous in its tone and really rather frightening in its message. Jesus promises to “cast fire upon the earth,” and he continues, “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” This is not the compassionate Jesus who is loving and forgiving. Rather, the Jesus of this passage of scripture indicates that his message, and his expectations of those who choose to follow him, will cause tension in relationships and division amongst people. Jesus’ language is apocalyptic and reminiscent of an Old Testament version of a cosmological God rather than the deep humanity of the New Testament, which we, oftentimes, feel more comfortable with and are more accustomed to. Jesus would appear to be frightening those who would listen.
What then is this “fire” that Jesus promises to cast on the earth? What in his message of peace and reconciliation could possibly cause division amongst intimates?
In the Old Testament Yahweh is associated time and time again with fire as He represents Himself to Moses in the Book of Exodus in the form of a burning bush, or as a scorching fire of judgment against the transgressions of the people of Israel in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. And so, Jesus’ fire must somehow represent the revelation of God as well as a tool of God’s punishment for those who are unfaithful. And yet, as we understand by both faith and tradition, Jesus is a deeper and fuller revelation of the mystery of God and, subsequently, his fire must enlighten some new aspect of faith than those revealed in the Old Testament.
Our second reading today from St. Paul’s letter to the Hebrews hints at the type of fire that Jesus hopes to ignite on the earth. Paul reminds the community not to lose sight of Jesus, to remain steadfast and not to become discouraged in their commitments to his teaching, promising that through faithfulness Divine reward will be granted. In this passage Paul is clearly encouraging these new converts to reject their previous way of life in favor of a life in Christ. Paul admonishes the Hebrews saying “throw of everything that hinders us, especially the sin that clings so easily, and keep running steadily in the race we have started.” Thus the fire that Jesus speaks of in today’s gospel is surely a purgation of those things that hinder us, a removal of the sin which keeps us from living more deeply in the knowledge and wisdom of God. This fire is an energy to move and inspire the life of the Christian community and thus can be interpreted as fidelity to the Spirit of Christ which descended upon his followers at Pentecost.
The Spirit of Jesus is given freely to all who choose to follow him through baptism. This is a fire planted within us to guide us, to direct us, and to admonish us when we deviate from the path; a living flame which, throughout our lives, purges us of that which may hold us back from unity with God. In this sense, the fire of Jesus that lives in each of us helps to mold us and shape us into what we are meant to become, a heat which warms or hearts encouraging us to continue the work of Jesus today. Through Jesus this fire is given to us to maintain and is thus no longer the sole possession of the God of the universe, the God of the Old Testament. God lives within the disciples of Jesus giving us the power to be more than the facility of our humanity could ever allow us to be without God. For those of us that live by faith we have countless stories to tell about how that fire has kept our spirits warm, called us away from the selfishness of sin, evoked
us into service of others, and revealed to us the beautiful plan of God for our world. We cherish this fire because, in the words of St. Paul, it is Jesus “who leads us in our faith and brings it to perfection.”
These thoughts perhaps reveal the unique nature of the fire that Jesus wants to spread on the earth, but do little to address the rather ominous notions of division that dominate today’s Gospel. In order to address this divisive message I would like to return for a moment to my earlier story about the fearful way I responded to the early morning storm in the spring. There must be an element of fear in our lives to encourage growth over complacency. If we knew we only had months or even moments to live how would we behave differently? When all is calm we can easily slip into sluggish contentment, even oblivious sinfulness, which postpones our fullest commitment to Christ. This lethargy dampens the fire within us. The dark tone of today’s Gospel is not simply the voice of wrathful punishment, but a wake-up call to each of us to put aside all that is not God and live more fully in the dignity of the fire that burns within each of us.
The problem is that when we live more deeply in Christ, when we forgive as Christ forgave, when we are stalwart in our commitment to equality, peace, and justice in our lives as Jesus was, others will take offense. We live in a world in which divisions are advocated, and difference is feared. We live in a world in which opinions dominate wisdom and the type of trepidation we prefer to respond to is of one another rather than offending God. The fire of Jesus is a fire of love, of compassion, of understanding, a fire of passion for peace and work for justice.
Let us pray that the passionate fire of Jesus will reign in our hearts, freeing us from sin and making us more compassionate towards others, and that we will have the courage to spread that fire across our planet.