22 Aug Twentieth Sunday
-August 18th, 2019 Deacon Blaine Barclay
‘I have come to set the world on fire, and I wish it were already burning!’ What does this mean? Is this Jesus, the ultimate revolutionary, calling us to burn it all down? ‘The old has passed away, the new has come’. Or, ‘Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, enkindle in them the fire of your love…. Or both, Burning bushes everywhere.
The analogy of fire is used throughout the Bible. It represents a number of themes. Together they form the background for understanding what Jesus is teaching us here. The fire that passed through the animal parts, sealing the covenant between God and Abraham. The fire of the altar of sacrifice that Abraham built that prefigured the altar of sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins that was central to Jewish Temple worship. The fire necessary for the burning of incense, representing our prayers rising up to God. My personal all-time favourite is the Burning Bush, burning but not consumed, when God’s presence called Moses to liberate the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt and revealed to Moses the sacred name. The pillar of fire that lighted the way for their desert journey at night when they were fleeing the slavery of Egypt. The fiery furnace into which the faithful Jews were thrown during the time of the prophet Daniel, and they danced with holy joy in the midst of the flames.
The ‘Refining Fire’ that purifies God’s people, as in Isaiah 48. ‘Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.’ Fire lights our way, cooks the bread that feeds us, warms us at its hearth, sends our prayers to God, ‘like incense before you’.
In the New Testament the Holy Spirit Is especially associated with a mighty wind and tongues of flaming fire, the fire of Pentecost. Where a small band of scared disciples, hiding behind locked doors because of their fear, are filled with holy boldness to go out to all the world proclaiming the gospel, the glad tidings of salvation in the Risen Christ. They were on fire with the love of God. ‘I have come to set the world on fire’, says Jesus, and this is just what the Early Church set out to do. To set up fiery outposts of a counter Kingdom, Messianic communities that embodied a totally other set of personal and political loyalties, than the prevailing world.
Just how the Early Church set out to do this is hinted at in our reading from the letter to the Hebrews today. First of all, they were not starting from scratch, from ground zero. Our reading tells us that they were ‘surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses’, reaching all the way back into salvation history. They were inspired by the faith of Abel, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Rahab, and the Prophets, to mention only a few. The previous chapter of Hebrews, after listing them, says, ‘They were all Heroes of the Faith’.
As Catholics we also have our many ‘Heroes of the Faith’, that is why we canonize so many Saints. And we all have our favourites whose intercession we seek, and whose example of heroic faith inspires us. A few of my own favourites, for different reasons, are St. Augustine, the teacher of interiority, St. Francis of Assisi, master of simplicity, St. Thomas Aquinas, the universal teacher of the faith, St. Edith Stein, philosopher saint. And not all our faith heroes are canonized. For example, Thomas Merton, or, Catherine Doherty of Madonna House. What do they inspire us to do? To live the faith in the midst of our struggles and difficulties. ‘To lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely’. They inspire us, with God’s good help, to do the work of Ascesis, the athletics of the soul, the disciplined training of the athlete. ‘To run with perseverance the race, the athletic contest, that is set before us’.
The most powerful inspiration and exemplar we have is Jesus. The letter to the Hebrews puts it this way, ‘Looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfector of our faith’. The language here is actually much stronger and more focused than this. One commentary suggests, ‘Keeping our gaze, a continual and steady gaze, directed to Jesus’. Jesus is [our ‘archegon’,] our ‘prime leader’, archetype, pattern. Jesus ‘endured the Cross, disregarding its shame’. He embraced our poverty right down to the bottom so that we could participate in his Resurrection life.
The power, the dynamite of this resurrection fire, is the only thing that can change us, wake us up from our nightmare fantasies of self making. and heal this poor broken world of ours, addicted to its own imploding power structures. ‘I have come to set the world on fire, and I wish it were already burning!’