Playing with fire

Picture by a Muslim child depicting
the destruction of churches in Egypt today and yesterday.
Today’s Gospel is not the easiest to understand. It contains uncomfortable words. Cutting words. Words we are inclined to cut out of our Bibles as we stay with warmer sentiments and more harmonious thoughts. At first reading, it seems that Jesus want to bring fire to the earth, disrupt and divide families. Yes, there are occasions in the Bible when ‘bad’ fire did fall from heaven. Fire and brimstone fell from heaven upon Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:24-25) and destroyed those towns and all who lived there. One of the ten plagues against Egypt was fire and hail from heaven (Exodus 9:3). The prophet Elijah called down fire from heaven that incinerated soldiers sent from wicked King Ahaziah (2 Kings 1:9-17). Lightning is sometimes described as fire from heaven in the Bible (Psalm 27:9; Psalm 144:5-6). All of these fires from God, however, were destructive fires. And it is the destructive and consuming force of fire that we usually think of when we think of fire. But Jesus says, “how I wish it were already kindled?”

Fire is both friend and enemy to man. Fire burns and kills and destroys. But it also cleanses and purifies. Throughout the centuries, it has fascinated man. Just think of those cartoons which show cavemen and their reactions of both fear and delight to the discovery of fire. However fire has huge potential to destroy vast areas in a small amount of time. As Christians, when we hear Jesus talk about the fire which has to come upon the earth, maybe we are more inclined to think of it as the ‘wrath of God’. We think of hell as the place where fire will never be quenched. However, the fire which Jesus speaks about is the fire which purifies. We are like the metal which is refined in the Refiner’s fire, to become stronger, brighter.

The Gospel tells us that Jesus does not come to bring peace, but division. Is this not a contradiction? In John 17, we witness Jesus praying the prayer of the heart to the Father for unity that ‘all may be one.’ What Jesus is saying that when you follow Him, not everyone understands your choices, even family members. Divisions and rifts may ensue. However the fire of Christ moves us out of ourselves to do great thing even in the face of opposition. When we become silent or change our position for the sake of external peace, just to get along, we are quenching the fire of the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19). Again, the second reading reminds us: “Consider how he (Jesus) endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart.” When we become silent or change our position for the sake of external peace, just to get along, we are quenching the fire of the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19). When we become silent or change our position for the sake of external peace, just to get along, we are quenching the fire of the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19). Yes, this stuff is outside the comfort zone, but it's the raw truth. We think of modern day examples of the great cloud of witnesses who didn’t give up, Mother Teresa, John Paul II, Nelson Mandela and many others whose names do not makes the news but are a spark of hope and consolation to so many.

Fr. Tommy Lane, an Irish priest, commenting on this Gospel, writes:
“If you have fire in you and haven’t yet done anything with it, think of Archbishop Oscar Romero. After Fr. Rutilio Grande, S.J. was murdered in El Salvador on March 12, 1977 for speaking against injustice, Archbishop Romero became very outspoken. That was the beginning of the turn-around in El Salvador. Oscar Romero had been quiet and timid before becoming a bishop. He was 60 years, and not long ordained a bishop, when he protested at the murders. So if you’re 58 or 59 and think you still haven’t brought good fire that is within you to the earth, remember Archbishop Oscar Romero; Life begins at 60. Jesus said, “I have come to bring fire to the earth and how I wish it were blazing already.” (Luke 12:49).”

In these past few days, you may have seen some of the saddening images of violence, death and destruction in Egypt. Hundreds have been killed. But why is this news not trending? Since Thursday, over 30 Churches together with other Church associated buildings, including many Catholic ones, have been burned. Many Christians are being persecuted and killed for their faith, especially within the Coptic Church. The second reading of today’s liturgy reminds us; “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses”. These are our brothers and sisters murdered for their faith. Put this alongside Europe and North America where so many people, especially young people, have become indifferent to their faith. They don’t have to worry about going to Church and possibly not coming home or being severely mutilated. Yet, in Egypt they continue to go to the churches. As one Coptic leader said today; ‘they may destroy our churches but not our people’. Pope Francis added his voice to the call for peace: “Let us pray together for peace, dialogue and reconciliation in that dear nation and throughout the world. Mary, Queen of Peace, pray for us. Let's all say it, Mary, Queen of Peace, pray for us."

“Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:32). The realisation of the disciples at Emmaus is the journey of every pilgrim when their heart is opened to the transforming power of Christ. I leave you with the words of Paulo Coelho, a prayer:

“I came to set fire to the earth”. And I am watchful that the fire grow.
May the fire of love grow in our hearts.
May the fire of transformation glow in our movements.
May the fire of purification burn away our sins.
May the fire of justice guide our steps.
May the fire of wisdom illuminate our paths.
May the fire that spreads over the earth never be extinguished.”