Franklin D. Roosevelt in his radio address to the nation on February 23, 1936 said: “No greater thing could come to our land today than a revival of the spirit of religion — a revival that would sweep through the homes of the nation and stir the hearts of men and women of all faiths to a reassertion of their belief in God and their dedication to his will for themselves and for their world. I doubt if there is any problem — social, political or economic — that would not melt away before the fire of such a spiritual awakening.”
Roosevelt uses “fire” as an image for a spiritual awakening. Fire has many uses and effects. It provides light in the darkness. It gives off heat to warm us in inclement weather. The same energy is used for cooking and providing meals. Its intense heat can purify and strengthen, such as used with metals. In nature naturally occurring forest fires can clear overgrown areas for sustainability and new growth. In a symbolic sense fire is used as an image for passion, desire and love.
Jesus himself uses such an image in Sunday’s Gospel when he says: “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!”
The fire of which he speaks is the fire of love. His love will be perfectly expressed and realized in his passion. This is the baptism of which he speaks. The fire of love will confront the hate, anger and fears of this world and will triumph through his faithfulness.
Jesus also speaks words that may disturb us. He says: “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” He then describes families that will be broken. The words seem incongruent with other parts of the Gospel. Yet they are his words. What does he mean? What is he getting at? Is this the “fire?”
One thing to consider is the context of his passion which he references as his “baptism.” The call of the kingdom — living life according to God’s vision of life — will disturb many. The call to love one’s enemies, to give up possessions to the poor, to associate with tax collectors and sinners, to love and forgive even if it is not reciprocated, to value eternal life more that life in this world, to make decisions in life based on truth rather than convenience and to follow Jesus to the Father will offend many who are taken up by the way of the world. The reality of this situation is seen not only in his passion but by the rejection he faces along the way. Jesus is aware of this as he journeys to Jerusalem.
Peace will be accomplished through him and his Gospel. Jesus knows this so when he says that he has not come for peace but division, he is referring to a different “peace,” perhaps the peace that the “world” wants to offer but is unable.
When Jesus uses the family as the example for divisions based on this, it shakes us up. Why? Because family is so important and necessary in our lives. The basis of division is between the kingdom and the world, between God’s way and man’s way. God wants peace; he wants unity and establishes communion. The way of the world is ultimately the way of self interest and autonomy. While the individual is important and essential in the communion of God’s love, he or she is not isolated but related. The communion can only be established through the fire of divine love.
The passage from Sunday’s Gospel comes from the Gospel according to St. Luke. Near the end of the Gospel, Jesus approaches two disciples as they are leaving Jerusalem after the passion and death of the Lord. They do not recognize him at first in his glorified body. As he walks with them in their sorrow, shame and fear resulting from the passion, Jesus speaks to them from the Scriptures and explains to them why it had to happen the way it did.
After the disciples break bread with the Risen Lord they recognize him, after which they say to themselves: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?” Whereupon they rush back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples. The encounter with the Risen Lord in the Scriptures fans the flame of love in the hearts of the disciples.
The same is available to us when we avail ourselves of the Word. Jesus fans the fire of divine love. This is the fire that purifies, strengthens, renews, awakens and fuels us in love, to love.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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