Fire can be as dangerous as it is beautiful and useful as it is mysterious. From the burning bush to the tongues of fire on the day of Pentecost, throughout the Scriptures, its language is rich and often used to reflect the nature of God (CCC 696). (c.f the Seraphim) Our own experience of the summer California wildfires touches us in a particular way. Many of us still have vivid memories of the fires of 2008 that surrounded us on three sides, provoking mass evacuations, destroying many homes and livelihoods.
It’s no consolation when we hear Our Blessed Lord saying in the gospel today, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing” and the cause of households divided against themselves, family members betraying each other's trust.
For example, sometimes it’s easy to understand the unintended tensions unleashed within a family to events such as funerals, weddings and even who gets invited and who doesn't to a family Thanksgiving dinner. But the fuse of this particular stick of dynamite has been lit by the Lord himself.
How do we understand this apparent “violence” with the image we must also have of Christ as the Good Shepherd and the Prince of Peace?
We must first consider when St. Luke wrote his Gospel message. It was probably written not long after the great fire of Rome in 64 A.D. The rumor was that the Emperor Nero had himself lit the match that destroyed much of the city so that he could begin a new massive building project. This is how a pagan historian, who survived the fire, described the aftermath.
"Consequently, to get rid of the report [that he started the fire], Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most creative tortures on a class of people hated for their abominations, called Christians by the common people … Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths...they were torn to death by dogs, or they were crucified on crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as human torches when nighttime illumination was needed." Tacitus, Annals XV.44
The early Christians, in the light of those “current events” would have, no doubt, listened to today’s Gospel and found in it an assurance that Our Lord himself experienced the fire of hell. But he transformed it into the fire of heaven. Abandoned by his own disciples, betrayed by the very ones he considered family, Christ shared in the anguish of persecuted Christians as non-believers betrayed friends and family when Roman soldiers came knocking on the door. But he rose triumphantly from the dead.
Yes, oftentimes we will get burnt (and it stings more when it is from family or friends), and we will scream and call out in anger and in anguish. But as painful as it often is, abandoning ourselves to the grace that comes from the suffering of Christ, let us pray that we may never mistake the purifying fire of heaven with the destructive fires of hell. One fire attracts us to the warmth of Christ. The other fire puts us in harm's way.
There lies the virtue of Christian hope that must triumph over every temptation to despair. For the Christian, despite the past hurts in our own day, we should always look forward to Sunday. The Lord’s Day who promises us that the best days are ahead of us. As St. Paul reminded us in the second reading, my same message is: we must “persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus”