20th Sunday of OT year C 2016:
Today in the gospel Jesus is quite provocative, quite challenging. When we think about the gospel, the Good News, I bet you don’t think about strife and division. If you had to think of your favorite bible passage, I doubt many of you first think of this one: a father against his son, son against father, and on and on. Certainly what Jesus says is 100% accurate. Faith can sometimes lead to division. Not everyone will share our belief in Christ. What’s the old saying: discuss anything except faith and politics. Those things can cause arguments and disagreements. But, I think it’s a mistake to think that the arguments are the point of faith. It’s not necessarily a sign of a healthy faith if everyone is divided against you. This reminds me of something a professor of mine said to my class once. He said, “gentlemen, when you become priests and you preach the gospel, some people will be hesitant to change their lives, and they will walk away from you and the church. That’s to be expected because they walked away from Jesus. But, they will also walk away from you if you are all a bunch of jerks. So make sure they aren’t leaving because of that.” Put that into the context of the reading, there might be divisions in our lives, but let’s make sure that those divisions are not simply caused by our own sinfulness or selfishness. How do we do that?
Go back to the first part of the gospel. Jesus says: I have come to set the earth on fire. What an interesting image. Fire! It’s bold and exciting. Fire is immanently useful for human beings: we use it to cook, we use it to heat our houses, to drive our cars. Without fire, we wouldn’t have our modern society. We would still be in caves somewhere. But, fire is also bold and dangerous. It can harm, it can destroy. It can be powerful and scary. But no matter what, fire is anything but weak, anything but boring or mediocre. Fire is bold and exciting.
I think that’s what Jesus has in mind here. He came to set the earth on fire. This might lead to some divisions. But, the divisions are not the point, it’s the fire that is key. He did not come to lull us to sleep. He did not come to spread of gospel of weakness or mediocrity. He came to set the world on fire. Is that our experience of faith? How many of us can say we have really experienced that fire in our lives?
I used to be a chaplain at Marian High School up in Mishawaka. I would have an all school mass once a month with the kids. I always felt a little bit frustrated at that Mass because the fire was missing. I would say: “Jesus Christ is the son of God, the savior of the world and he wants to give you eternal life.” The response: yawn… The response to the amazing message of the gospel was not one of excitement, enthusiasm, but one of apathy. Now, I know that a lot of that response had to do with the peer pressure the teens experience. They didn’t want to stand out in the crowd. I get all that. But, I thought of it as something important for all of us. How do we react to this message? Are we part of the world that is on fire? Or are we cold and smoldering?
As I was preparing for the homily this Sunday, I was reminded of Blaise Pascal. He was a philosopher, scientist, mathematician in the 17th century. After he died, people found a piece of paper stitched into his coat talking about an important event in his life. On November 23rd in 1654, Pascal had an intense experience of God. He called it a night of fire. I will put his poem in next week’s bulletin, but he said he experienced certainty, heartfelt peace, joy, love: “O righteous Father, the world has not known thee, but I have known thee.” Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy. This is anything but a mediocre or lukewarm experience. Pascal had an experience of God and he felt it as a burning fire.
As I read that poem, I felt a great longing. Don’t we all desire that fire, that burning experience, those tears of joy? I know I do. What is the temperature of your relationship with God? Is it hot, lukewarm, cold? Jesus wants to set the world on fire. Let that fire into your life: joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I don’t pretend to be an expert in all of this mystical experience. But, here are some tips for warming up your relationship. First, remember that Jesus is the one who does the work. He has the fire. We don’t create it on our own. So ask him for it. That would be a good daily prayer: dear Lord, fill me with the fire of your love. One of the images for the Holy Spirit is a tongue of fire: ask the Spirit to give you his fire. Second, create opportunities for Christ to touch your hearts with his fire. Go to confession, go to Mass, pray the rosary, spend an hour in the chapel. Give Christ a chance to touch your hearts. Another great way would be to go on a retreat. We have a great Christ Renews His Parish program here at St. Jude. Hundreds of people in our community have felt the fire of Christ by going on this retreat. Next month we will be having a women’s and a men’s retreat weekend. Maybe you haven’t gone on it before. Go on it this year. Give God a chance to touch you with the flames.
Blaise Pascal had just one night of fire, and it changed the rest of his life. Jesus wants to set the whole earth on fire. Open your hearts to the fire of his love.