Today Jesus says to us: ‘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!’ (Luke 12:49-50).
Clearly, these are passionate words. They come straight from Christ’s heart. Fire and water, blazing and drowning, desire and distress – they are all there.
Let’s just take the fire-saying, and go slowly over it.
Jesus says first, ‘I have come’. We can think of other times he uses that phrase, ‘I have come’. ‘I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.’ ‘I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners’. And when we hear those words, ‘I have come…’ we should sit up. Jesus is letting us into the meaning and direction of his life, he’s revealing what he’s really about, saying who he is and what it is that really moves him. ‘I have come’ means ‘I have been sent – by my Father. This is the mission, this is the task he has given me.’ ‘I have come not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.’ Jesus comes from the Father – he is the eternal Son of the Father. Everything he is as God, everything he does as man, comes from the Father. ‘I have come…’ He’s about to disclose what the Father wants him to do. We sit up because, surely, as believers, as baptized people, we don’t want to get in Christ’s way. We want to be in line with him, on his side.
‘I have come…’ to do what? ‘To bring fire on the earth’. Actually, not just ‘bring’ it, but according to the Greek ‘cast, throw, hurl’ it. Christ as a fast bowler as it were, or Christ as a tennis player – not giving the ball a gentle pat, but a 90mph serve. This fire will come like a bolt of lightning.
And what does fire mean here? Fire is a good thing – ‘Brother Fire’ St Francis calls it. ‘Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom you light the night, and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong’ (Canticle of Creation). Without the fire of the Sun, there’d be no light, no life. Conversely, what a moment when human beings discovered how to make fire, tame fire! Then there could be light in the dark, warmth in the cold. Then we could cook. And yet fire destroys. Forest fires, burning houses, the terrible fire of warfare, of Dresden or Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We now have the power to destroy our planet by the fire of nuclear energy; we can incinerate ourselves. Metaphorically, we talk of the fire of passion, of anger and lust or ambition. Love is a fire, is it not? Again, there is the fire of persecution so many of our fellow-believers are passing through. There is the Bible saying: ‘Our God is a consuming fire.’ Jesus talks of the ‘unquenchable fire’ of hell.
So, what is this fire then Jesus has come to throw at us? It will be something that can warm us, illuminate us, set us on fire in a good way, make us ‘bright and playful, robust and strong’, but it might consume, incinerate, cleanse, purify us too.
What does Jesus mean? Already in Luke’s Gospel, John the Baptist has said, ‘He – the coming one – will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire’ (Lk 3:16). There’s a clue. In today’s Gospel, Jesus goes on to speak about the baptism he has to undergo – his Passion. This fire comes out of his suffering; it was lit on the Cross. The Acts of the Apostles, also St Luke’s work, speaks of the tongues of fire that settled on the Apostles at Pentecost. We are being pointed again to the Holy Spirit. Fire is one of his symbols. He is called ‘fire’ in the Veni Creator Spiritus. ‘Fire symbolizes the transforming energy of the Holy Spirit’s actions’, says the Catechism (CCC 696). This is what he brings.
The Old Testament may help us too. Israel is a people who ‘pass through fire and water’, again and again. And their God makes himself known to them, often enough, in fire. The Lord appears to Abraham in a dream as a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch. He speaks to Moses out of a burning bush and comes down on Mt Sinai in fire. He guides the Israelites at night by a pillar of fire. He sends down fire on the sacrifice of Elijah. Fire comes forth from his mouth, says a Psalm. The Temple was a place of fire, especially the altar of burnt offering, and God’s presence there was symbolized by the seven flames of the candlestick. God comes in fire, comes as fire. ‘I have come to throw fire on the earth’ = I have come to bring you the presence of the living God, I have come to throw you into the fire of the living God.
Again, Pope Benedict said something helpful: the fire is ‘Christ’s own passion of love, a fire that is to be handed on. Whoever comes close to him must be prepared to be burned. This is a fire that makes things bright and pure and free and grand. Being a Christian, then, is daring to entrust oneself to this burning fire.’ There is a probably authentic saying of Christ, not recorded in the Gospels: ‘He who is close to me is close to the fire’. We might think of the three young men in the burning fiery furnace. Often life can feel like an incinerator. And yet those youngsters were protected, and sang a song of praise – singing, not in the rain like the old song, but in the fire. So must we. We will pass through the fire of trial and temptation. Indeed, in our time, the Church is being purified by fire. Let’s try to see that in it and beyond it is ‘Christ’s own passion of love.’
‘I have come to throw fire on the earth.’ The Liturgy and Sacraments are here too. ‘I have come…’ when he was born of the Virgin Mary; we think of Advent and Christmas. ‘To throw fire’; we think of Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit. This is the fire that seemed to be smothered on the Cross but broke out again in the Resurrection: we think of Easter. In the months after Pentecost, we remember so many saints, men and women who caught the fire. Out of the water of baptism, the fire of faith was lit in our hearts. ‘I have come to throw fire on the earth’, that is into our humanity. At Confirmation, the fire of the Holy Spirit seals us, enters our bones as it were, like fire in a rafter, waiting to blaze out one day. Before the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle, a light burns. The Eucharist is a burning coal that touches our lips. It’s to light the living flame of love, as St John of the Cross called it.
‘I have come to throw fire on the earth.’ Can I suggest, take this saying home. Think of it during the week. Ask our Lord to open its meanings to you, to let it catch fire in you.
Let me end with St Francis again. At the end of his life, his eyes, said the doctors, needed cauterizing. Before this barbaric operation, St Francis appealed to Brother Fire: ‘The Most High made you strong, beautiful and useful. In this hour, be gracious to me, be courteous. I have loved you many years in the Lord. I pray him to temper your heat now that I may bear your gentle burning.’
Jesus, we might pray, help me bear your gentle burning!
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 18 August 2019)