Ignem veni mittere in terram

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Twentieth Sunday of the Year C

Jeremiah 38: 4-6. 8-10
Psalm 39: 2-4. 18. R. v.14
Hebrews 12:1-4
Luke 12:49-53

Fire Upon the Earth

The first sentence of today’s Gospel is a window into Our Lord’s interior life, a laying bare of the thoughts of His Sacred Heart. “I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled” (Lk 12:49). This is the sort of self-revelation that we more usually associate with the Gospel of Saint John. “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of Him who sent me” (Jn 6:38). “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10). Jesus identifies this mysterious fire with the very aim of His mission on earth, with the will of His Father, with the transmission of life, life in abundance. “I came to cast fire upon the earth” (Lk 12:49).

Near the Fire

Origen, in his homilies on Jeremiah, reports what he considers to be an authentic saying of Our Lord: “Whosoever is near me is near the fire; whosoever is far from me is far from the Kingdom” (Homily 20 on Jeremiah). Fire signifies the presence of Jesus, the inbreaking of the Kingdom, the incandescence of His divinity, the blaze that Moses had already contemplated on Horeb, the mountain of God (Ex 3:2). The “deifying light” of the Rule of Saint Benedict (RB Pro:2) is inseparable from the divinizing fire. “Whosoever is near me is near the fire,” says the Lord.

Fire of Destruction?

What is this fire? What does it represent? Is it a fire of destruction and of vengeance? When James and John wanted to bid fire come down from heaven to consume the inhospitable village of Samaritans, Jesus turned and rebuked them (Lk 9:54). His is not a fire of destruction.

The Sword

Is fire merely a metaphor for the divisions announced in the last three verses of today’s Gospel? The division brought about by the coming of Christ, I think, is better served by the metaphor of the sword found in the parallel passage in Saint Matthew: “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Mt 10:34); and in the prophecy of the aged Simeon: “A sword will pierce through your own soul also that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed” (Lk 2:35).

Fire in the Service of God

According to the psalm, fire is God’s servant: “You make the winds Your messengers and flashing fire Your servants” (Ps 103:4). By means of fire, “flashing continually in the midst of the hail” (Ex 9:24), God punished the land of Egypt. By means of fire, He purifies the sons of Levi, refining them like gold and silver, for their sacred service in His presence (Mal 3:2-3). In fire, the Lord God descends upon Mount Sinai to make covenant with His people (Ex 19:18). And in response to the prayer of Elijah, His prophet, the Lord causes fire to fall from heaven, a voracious fire, consuming holocaust and wood, and stones and dust, and even the water that was in the trench (1 K 18:38). “And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, The Lord, He is God; the Lord, He is God” (1 K 18:39).

The Jealousy of Fire

Like the presence of the living God, fire fascinates and repels; it beckons to us and fills us with terror; it gives warmth and light, even as it devastates and reduces to ashes. There is something inherently jealous about fire; it longs to embrace all that surrounds it in its flames “Our God,” says the Letter to the Hebrews, “is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:29). All of this —and more besides— resonates in the words of Jesus: “I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled” (Lk 12:49).

John, the Burning and Shining Lamp

In John 5:34, Our Lord speaks of His precursor, John the Baptist: “He was a burning and shining lamp.” No lamp is itself a source of fire; rather the lamp receives its fire from another source; only then is it placed on a stand to give light to all in the house ( cf. Mt 5:15). If John is indeed a lamp, we are obliged to ask when was he set ablaze? What was the source of his flame? “When Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Lk 1:41). In the womb of Elizabeth, the lamp had been prepared to receive the fire of the Spirit, that fire by which the Baptist would both burn and shine. Is it any wonder that the same Baptist should announce the coming of the Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in terms of his own experience? “I baptize you with water; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Lk 3:16).

The Fire of the Holy Spirit

The desire of Our Lord Jesus Christ is to communicate the fire of the Holy Spirit; it is to extend the baptism of the Head to each of the members; it is to allow the living blaze of love to escape from His own Sacred Heart, to inflame the Church, to come to rest upon the heads of His disciples in tongues as of fire (cf. Ac 2:2). It is no mere coincidence that the Magnificat Antiphon of First Vespers of the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart is the very same one given for this Sunday’s First Vespers, “I came to cast fire upon the earth and would that it were already kindled” (Lk 12:49). It is no mere coincidence either that the Heart of Jesus is called a “burning furnace of love.”

The Two Baptisms

For Saint Luke, the entire earthly life of Our Lord unfolds between two baptisms: the first is Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan by John, and the second is the baptism of His passion and death. “I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished” (Lk 12:50). How like this cry of Jesus is the cry of Jeremiah, His prophet: “There is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it and I cannot” (Jer 20:0). In the passion and death of Jesus, the burning fire is no longer shut up. The cross and the pierced Heart are the beginning of Pentecost. The burning bush of Mount Horeb is fulfilled in the tree of the cross, all ablaze with the fire of the Holy Spirit. And we, like Moses removing his sandals before the burning bush, approach with bare feet the incandescent tree of the cross on Good Friday.

Fire From Heaven

Today, and so often as, in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we celebrate the mystery of the cross, fire from heaven descends upon the altar, no longer in response to the prayer of Elijah, but in response now to the prayer of Christ: altar, victim and priest. We, of course, are free to approach the altar, carefully armed with every manner of protection, lest we be drawn into the flames and set all ablaze. We are free to measure our surrender to the flame of the Spirit, giving some of ourselves, and holding back the greater part, lest we lose ourselves in the conflagration of the cross. We are also free to cast ourselves into the fire, to be consumed like a grain of incense in the thurible.

Become All Flame

I am reminded of the word of Abba Joseph to Abba Lot: “You cannot be a monk unless you become like a consuming fire.” To this, Abba Lot responded, describing the measure of his surrender to the flames: “Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Abba Joseph stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

Burning Hearts

If we will, we can become all flame. The “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1) that surrounds us in these Holy Mysteries attests to this. With one voice they say, “Did not our hearts burn within us?” (Lk 24:32). The prayer of Christ our Priest in this Holy Mass will obtain nothing less. There is fire in the Bread from Heaven; there is fire in the Chalice. The Body of Christ. The Blood of Christ. The Fire of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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It is no mistake I read this today. Thank you for this post.

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About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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