Scripture Readings: Book of the Prophet Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10; Letter to the Hebrews 12:1-4; Gospel According to Saint Luke 12:49-53
At the beginning of this Sunday’s Gospel passage, Jesus speaks of his coming in order to kindle fire on earth and the wish that the fire was already blazing. We might ask to what the fires refers to. Living as I do in an Alpine desert setting that is overly dry for some years now, and really the whole of the American southwest at this time, fire is not always an attractive word. How easily does fire bring damage and destruction in its path. On the other hand, fire in some form is needed for warmth and for cooking, to mention its most obvious functions. So once again, what is the fire Jesus speaks of all about?
In part it is a fire of devastation, judgment, purification and transformation. The latter two, purification and transformation, probably are more appealing to us than the notions of devastation and judgment. In any case, the person of Jesus and his message to the nations challenges people to make a decision about God’s message. From that fundamental choice regarding God, actions will flow that reflect (or not) adherence to trust in the goodness and mercy of God.
The experience of Jesus included the burning passion to accomplish the mission given him by his Father. Those who follow in the footsteps of the Master will have times of suffering and purification, not to discourage us, but that God may be everything to each of us. Jesus was divine as well as human, meaning that he was torn at times between conflicting feelings, distressed and overcome with oppression, but also convinced that he could and must do what he was sent to accomplish.
In the Old Testament intense suffering of the just, in addition to being compared with fire, often was symbolically expressed in imagery taken from the natural phenomenon of flood waters. The Book of Psalms speaks of people being overcome by flood waters, plunged into water, submerged under roaring waves and as a result, on the brink of death.
The accomplishment of the mission of Jesus, namely, the salvation of the human race, included the ultimate handing over of his life into the hands of those who would betray him. This “baptism by fire,” as it is sometimes called, was an experience like that described in many of the one-hundred fifty psalms.
Jesus taught his followers that they were to be messengers of peace. Later thinkers, such as Mohandas Gandhi, understood that Jesus basically preached a non-violent path. Nonetheless, the peace which Christ came to give was to be established through his passion and death. This lead to the resurrection from the dead, never denying or negating the suffering that Jesus also endured.
The coming of Jesus ushered in a new age, but one that would also imply conflicts, crises, division and serious decisions regarding the place of God in one’s life, even reaching the very intimacy of the home. In other words, some would and will say yes to God and others will say no. That is the sense of the phrase of as found in the Gospel according the Saint Matthew: “I have not come to bring peace but a sword” (Gospel of Saint Matthew, chapter 10, verse 34). And in today text of Saint Luke it is expressed as, “I have come for division.”
The entire context and meaning of the words of Jesus is united closely to the mystery of the Cross and the Resurrection of Christ. Through his death Jesus reconciled God and humans, and humans with other humans. At the heart of it all is the reality that Jesus stands as a challenge to those who take his message seriously. The work “challenge,” though, has to be understood as opportunity or invitation to live and have life to the full, in Jesus Christ.
At the center of Gospel-inspired division is Christ himself. Only Christ, who has undergone the supreme sacrifice and suffering, can make demands of allegiance and pose a serious challenge, for Jesus Christ alone is Emmanuel, literally, God-with-us.
There is an ancient saying preserved outside the canonical Gospels, but which is often quoted in the context of today’s Gospel passage. It reads, as coming from Jesus, “He who is near me is near fire; he who is far from me is far from the Kingdom” (found in the so-called Gospel of Thomas).
This Sunday the Gospel is focused on the concept of Jesus as a “sign of contradiction,” as Simeon the prophet had predicted to Mary and Joseph at the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Jerusalem Temple.
The essential paradox of Jesus’ own life and work is evident in this Sunday’s Gospel text. Centuries before the coming of Jesus, the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah was a sign of contradiction in his age, as he said to God, “You have borne me to be a man of dissention for all the land.” This idea reminds us of what Jesus was to the people of him time and is to people up to the present.
In Jesus mentioning ideas of “fire” and “baptism” in the Gospel today, we find echoes of what Jeremiah also encountered, the conflict between the God-given call and mission and at the same time the rejection of the one who bore the message.
Important to bear in mind is the fact that we are not alone, no matter how much we may feel so at times or often. The second reading this Sunday, from the Letter to the Hebrews, makes mention of the “cloud of witnesses” who surround us. They are with God forever. They are with us and encourage us in our own struggles along the way to God’s House. Therefore, we are told, “persevere in running the race which lies ahead.”
Those are encouraging words that we all need to hear in following Jesus. We are not alone and we can “keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, who inspires and perfects our faith,” (Letter to the Hebrews, chapter 12, verses 1 through 4), as today’s reading says so eloquently.
Prior Christian Leisy, OSB
Monastery of Christ in the Desert
Abiquiu, New Mexico