Today is the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time. The weekly readings are here and are extremely challenging. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus proclaims:
“I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing! There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!” (Luke 12:49-50).
The image of fire occurs fairly frequently in the Bible, from the burning bush with Moses to the tongues of fire with pentecost. Fire is also an image frequently used by Teilhard de Chardin to describe the spiritual life. Today’s Gospel describes that this purifying fire of Christ will occasionally cause strife and division as some people will choose not to accept the message of truth, peace of love proclaimed by Christ. The reflection for this week is from Living Space, the great site run by the Irish Jesuits, which discusses the very challenging words from the Gospel. I encourage you to read the entire reflection here but set forth below is a summary:
a. “I have come to bring fire on the earth.”
This is not the fire of destruction, the fire that ravages rain forests every year.
It is the fire of heat and light.
It is the fire that cleanses and purifies.
It is the fire of God’s presence
as in the burning bush that Moses saw,
as in the pillar of fire that accompanied the Israelites in the desert,
as in the tongues of fire at Pentecost where the bringing of fire was mandated to the disciples, to the Church, to all of us.
As a purifying fire it can also bring pain and purification but it ultimately leads to conversion and liberation.
b. “There is a baptism I must receive and great is my distress till it is over.”
This does not mean that Jesus is to be re-baptised in the Jordan. The word baptism implies total immersion (the way sacramental baptism was carried out in the early church and in some churches today). There is a close link between the catechumen being “buried” in water and rising with Christ and Jesus being “baptised”, immersed in his suffering and death on the way to resurrection. Jesus does not look forward to his “baptism” for the pain it brings but for the salutary effects it produces for all of us.
* * *
The Christian message is non-violent. It brings love, compassion, harmony, peace.
It brings people together so that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female… But it also of its nature challenges injustice, corruption, discrimination, abuse, dishonesty and all attacks on human dignity. The role of the evangelizer is “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.”
Vested interests – the rich, the powerful inside and outside the Church – will do anything to keep what they have. When the Church preaches and lives the Gospel, conflict is inevitable – even though in no way wished or intended.
So, in one way, religion should never divide (as in Northern Ireland). It is only a false Christianity and religion that deliberately creates division (“them and us”). It is not Christianity or any other religion as such which has brought so much suffering but certain people who call themselves “Christians” (or Muslims, Hindus or Jews).
At the same time, true Christianity in defending truth, justice, human dignity and freedom will inevitably meet opposition and be attacked. The passage which says that the peacemakers are blessed also says that those who are persecuted in the name of the Gospel are equally blessed. Strangely enough, both go together.
The Christian message has been and will continue to be challenging. In my own life, I often cling to my selfish pride and ego. I pray for the grace of God’s purifying fire to strip me of my self-centeredness that prevents me from truly living the Gospel message. May God help all of us pursue the vision of Teilhard de Chardin that humanity can rediscover God’s fire of love:
“The day will come when, after harnessing space, the winds, the tides, and gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, we shall have discovered fire.” — Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “The Evolution of Chastity,” in Toward the Future, 1936, XI, 86-87.