The Gift of God’s Fire on Earth
by Fr. David May
Mass reading: from the Gospel of St. Luke, ch 12, vs 49-53:
I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already! There is a baptism I must still receive, and how great is my distress till it is over!
Do you suppose that I am here to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on a household of five will be divided: three against two and two against three; the father divided against the son, son against father, mother against daughter, daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.
The Lord tells us in this challenging passage of the Gospel that there is a baptism that he must receive, and how great is his distress until it is over. All the interpreters of this particular verse say that that ‘baptism’ refers to his suffering and cross.
It is on the cross that the Lord suffered and bore all that divides us from God. Everything imaginable that divides human beings from their Creator, he suffered on the cross. That gives him, you could say, the right, and the power, to bring fire to the earth, God’s fire. Because anything that divides us from that fire, he has already taken on, on the cross. Therefore his distress was great until he could reach that moment where he is free, now, to give that fire to all of his people.
I’d like to talk about the fruit of the Lord’s suffering on the cross, which is the gift of fire that he mentions in this Gospel. We know from Scripture studies that fire, in the Old Testament as well as in the New, means purification. Whenever the word ‘fire’ is mentioned—very often, in the Prophets—it means some type of purification that’s coming, or that will be given.
It can also mean the judgement of God. Fire refers to his judgement, the judgement like a fire, to burn away all that is opposed to God, so that what is of God might flourish. Fire also refers to sacrifice, and there is no sacrifice without fire—something has to be given up.
Also, we learn in the New Testament that fire refers to the Holy Spirit. He is the fire, sent by God. John the Baptist said, “I baptize you with water, but there is one coming after me whose sandals I am not worthy to undo, and he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” The two are equivalent.
And I find unforgettable that passage in the Book of Revelation, the beginning of chapter one, where the Lord appears in glory to John (the one who received the revelation) and John says that “his eyes were like flames of fire”. It is interesting what the Lord says, because once John sees this vision “with eyes like flames of fire”, with the word of God coming “like a sword from his mouth”, with “his face as bright as the sun”, he faints—which is a sensible solution to the situation! The Lord takes him and raises him back up, and says, as usual, “Do not be afraid”. Then he says, “I was dead but now I live; and I will live for ever and ever. And I hold the keys to death and the nether world”.
That tells us, then, what this fire is all about: the Lord does not want his people dead. He wants us alive. He wants us to be risen, in the way that he is risen from the dead. He wants us alive.
It’s interesting, when the Lord says, “I have come to bring fire to the earth” literally it means: “I’ve come to throw fire on the earth”. Whhhhoom! The word is the same as for ‘throw’ or ‘toss’.
“I’ve come to toss fire onto the earth.” To throw it. It’s a well-aimed pitch, a well-aimed toss.
“What’s dead? What, in my disciples, isn’t alive yet?” And “with eyes like flames of fire” (which means with divine love)—Whhhhoom! Love can’t stand the death of the beloved. Love cannot stand to see his beloved still dead in some way.
His solution is fire, to separate (or, as it says here, “divide”) what’s dead from what’s meant to live, so that what’s dead no longer suffocates what’s alive. And so that what’s alive from him, the Spirit, can flourish. Well-aimed tosses of the flame—he knows just where to throw it.
The next verses tell us that the Lord comes, not to bring peace, but division. So much for the angels’ song at Christmas! That’s temporarily canceled. Peace on earth—forget it, says the Lord; because the Lord does not want his disciples to be ‘resting in peace’. That’s a graveyard activity! The Lord wants us fully alive.
We need to just sit for a moment with this theme of fire.
It seems from this Gospel and from many other passages that the only way for Christ to obtain the life of his disciples is to divide us from what kills us. We are incapable of doing that ourselves. As soon as I start operating, self-surgery, I make a mess of it. I’m unable to remove, myself, what kills me. Only he can do that; but he will enlist my cooperation.
Christ comes because he wants us to leave behind, our comfort zone. My world, my comfort zone, ‘what I can handle’, what I like, my plans, ‘my limitations’ (reasonably thought through!) these the Lord doesn’t like. They’re called “dead,” at least according to the Lord. They might seem quite alive to us. How often have you found yourself saying, ‘I just wish I had a normal life, and did not have so many troubles.’ “If you wish to be perfect, sell everything you have, give it to the poor, and come, follow me,” Christ says.
‘But,’ you reply, ‘I’m keeping all the Commandments already; that’s a good track record, Lord.’ Apparently, that’s no longer enough—as admirable as it is, and necessary. The Lord wants more. With the coming of the New Covenant, just keeping the Commandments, my way, means that eventually I will not keep them, I will break them, because it’s my way. Now it must be his way. And so the Lord ‘casts fire’ at me.
I remember once at our Madonna House summer camp for families, we brought the teenagers here to watch a video, and then we told stories about vocations. A 14 year old young lady, precocious, said, “You mean God can interfere with my life like that?” It was such a beautifully honest question. She had never thought that could ever happen: “I have a life; I’m going to live it; I’ve got plans. God? Could he interfere with them?”
But there are other bondages that the fire of God is hurled at—because he loves us ‘a little too much’! If only he loved us a little less, life would be ever so much more comfortable. He sees our interior attitudes, thoughts, plans. And the Lord doesn’t always like them—because he loves us. So the Lord hurls fire at that place in our soul, and our bodies, that’s clinging to that comfort, that passion, that opinion, that way of living, that way of doing things, where “I just am not quite ready yet to let go of—because if I do, I will die; I know no other way to live”.
The Lord smiles and says, Fire! God sees where the attachment is—to sin; to passion; to a person; to one’s way of thinking; to one’s opinion; to one’s “it has to be this way or no way”—and he goes Whhhhooom!
Now I discover another dimension to the fire, which I wasn’t anticipating, which is in some ways easier, and in some ways much more difficult. And that is: he has mercy on cowards and failures. That burns, if I’m a coward or a failure. That really burns! “You mean he’s forgiven me again?” He says, “Okay. Start over.” Again? You mean he’s not put off that I have turned my back, again? That I’ve not filled the quota yet, of: “Finally You will reject me; finally, You will be finished with me. I’ve proven to You, at last that I’m not worth the effort.”
He says, “My child, come. I forgive you. Let’s try again. Let’s start all over.” This burns pride.This sears condemnation and shame. It can hurt. Oh, delicious hurt—at last to be freed from the delusion that I’m supposed to be a spiritual success. Because I’m not a spiritual success; I am a failure, but for the mercy of God. And if I live in that mercy then I’m what God calls alive—having faith that I am forgiven, and can start all over, fresh. Mercy is a fire, a beautiful fire, especially when you believe in it. Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus.
Only those who receive fire give it. This earth, our world, is in desperate need of fire—the Holy Spirit—desperate, life-threatening need.
The Lord wants to give fire, because he knows the alternative is not mediocrity, or ‘carrying on as usual’. The alternative will be death. We will choose either death or fire, which is life; it’s just the way we’re made. Either we choose fire, or we choose death. A worldly life might be nicely packaged, but it’s death.
“Choose life, then,” says the Lord, “because I want to give it to you.”