Setting the world on fire
GUIDING LIGHT - Rev. Fr. Benjamin Sim sj (The Freeman) - August 18, 2019 - 12:00am

This short passage of the Gospel today is packed with dynamite.  And Jesus seems to present a pretty grim picture of what he was up to, namely to set the world on fire, to go through the anguish of his baptism (and that, for us to follow); and finally, to bring division to households. 

Isn't this a terrible picture of a terrible God?  Yet, Jesus has been teaching us that God is a loving Father and that he is the Prince of Peace.  How are we to understand this confusion?

First, fire has many purposes.  There is a destructive fire that wipes out and destroys, often causing immense damage to homes, buildings, and properties.  There is also the beneficial fire that cooks food for the hungry, warms those that are cold, purifies what is polluted like refining gold or silver, or boiling water, and brightens the hearth in the family home.

But the Lord is speaking of fire in a symbolic sense.  What does fire symbolize?  In present day thinking, fire symbolizes violence or passion, but also love in the highest form.  

We speak of a burning hatred, the heat of passion, of consuming fire of love, the flames of undying love. 

Yet, to understand what our Lord meant in today's Gospel, it is necessary to know what fire symbolizes in the mind of those who wrote the Scriptures.

In the Scriptures, fire is a symbol of divine presence, like the burning bush.  Often in the prophetic books, the divine presence is that of judgment and punishment. 

But Jesus did not come to judge and punish the world.  “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” 

So, when Jesus says in today's Gospel: “I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already.”  It cannot mean the fire of judgment and punishment.

There is another symbolic meaning of fire in the Scripture, and that is cleansing, purification, transformation to a more perfect state, like Isaiah being cleansed with a burning coal. 

When the Holy Spirit descended upon those in the upper room on Pentecost, it was in tongues of fire.  They were transformed.

This is what the Savior came to do: to cleanse, to purify, to transform – purification from all evil, transformation into a new creature, a child of God sharing his own divine sonship.  This is what John the Baptist prophesied of him.  He will baptize you –that is, immerse you in the Holy Spirit and fire.

To a world deprived of human warmth, of hope for a truly universal communion, and of selfless love, Christ brings the fire of his love.  Only that fire can give warmth to our hearts, cause ill-feelings to melt, bring about the disappearance of “cold wars” which prevent nations from living as brothers.

“I have a baptism to be baptized with” means “I must go through a terrible experience; and life is full of tension until I pass through it and emerge triumphantly from it.”  The cross was ever before his eyes.  The fire with which we must be aflame is the very fire which is burning in the sacred heart of Jesus; it is a fire which is not of this world, a fire which comes from God. 

It is the fire of the Holy Spirit of love in whom we have all been baptized.  It is the will of God that something in us be burning and hurting. 

We all have met people whom we suspected to be on fire, consumed by something not of this earth – hunger and thirst for justice, mercy, expectation of God – they in turn have set us on fire. And we, poor Christians so cold of heart, must humbly ask: “Ignite something in my heart, something no force could extinguish (neither failure, nor age, nor weariness) something burning and overpowering, something humble and gentle, something coming from you.”

Inasmuch as we want to light up on earth the fire of love, to bring about a revolution of mentalities and structures, then we are driven to the same baptism as that of Jesus, we must follow in his footsteps, the anguish of disposition and failure, consent to give our lives for the sake of the ideal we have chosen.

Msgr. Arthur Tonne tells this story.  A stagecoach was rumbling through western Montana.  It was bitterly cold.  The driver did everything to keep his two passengers warm – a woman and her tiny baby. 

But the mother was getting drowsy from the cold.  If she fell asleep, she would never wake up again.  He pulled the horses to a halt, wrapped the baby and put it under the seat.  Then he dragged the mother from the coach, slammed the door shut, and drove off. 

Frantically the mother stumbled after him, screaming for her baby.  When the driver felt sure the woman was awake and warm, he stopped until she caught up with the coach.  It was a rough way to keep her alive, but that mother was always grateful to that driver. He had done what God often does.  To shake us out of our spiritual drowsiness and laziness, our heavenly Father often permits trials and troubles that awaken us, sometimes roughly, to his power, his presence, his love.

That is one reason God permits the many difficulties, divisions, differences and disagreement.  Jesus tells us in today's Gospel passage that he did not come to present peace to us on a silver platter, but that difficulties would be the price of peace. 

Peace demands struggle.  The individual who seeks peace must struggle against his own inclinations.  The family seeking peace must give up – painfully – individual likes and dislikes to attain it. 

The family of God, the Church, in its search for peace, must go through many differences and disagreements.  All these are part of God's plan to shake us out of the drowsy condition that could lead us to spiritual death.

The life and death of Jesus have produced a decisive division in the world.  In order to be his disciple, following his example, one must have the courage to affirm the truth he believes, and the heroism to face the most violent contradiction.  The supreme peace Jesus promised us is beyond our legitimate differences and unavoidable confrontations, outside and inside the Church. 

Do we not all too often mix with the Gospel teachings many personal motivations which are far from being perfectly pure?  God asks of us that we be true witnesses of Christ, and of him alone.

His coming would inevitably mean division; in fact it did.  Over and over again a person has to decide whether he loves his near and dear ones better or Christ.  The essence of Christianity is that loyalty to Christ has to take precedence over the dearest loyalties of this earth.  One must be prepared to count all things as loss for the excellence of Jesus Christ.

How does Jesus do that?  By the preaching of the Good News.  In the words of the two disciples at Emmaus, “Were our hearts not on fire when he spoke to us?” and by the Eucharist, our spiritual nourishment.


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