It was Game 2 of the 1977 World Series, played on October 12th at Yankee Stadium. ABC “cameras covering the game cut to a helicopter shot of the surrounding neighborhood where a large fire was shown raging out of control in Public School 3, a building occupying the block bordered by Melrose and Courtlandt Avenues and 157th and 158th Streets.” Reacting to that shot, Howard Cosell turned to Keith Jackson and never actually said, “Ladies and Gentleman, the Bronx is burning”.
If you’ve been watching the news, you’ll know that Portugal has, in fact, been burning. The Madeira islands are ablaze and mainland Portugal has its own wildfires. It’s to the point where Portuguese authorities have actually broadcast an S.O.S of sorts, they’ve just ask anyone who can come and help to come and help.
Fire is like that. It’s a destroyer of worlds. It’s the devil’s only friend. And so it’s okay to be a bit confused by today’s Gospel lesson, to be more than a bit put off. “I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!” Those aren’t the words of Jesus usually written above altars or graphically depicted in stained glass, right? But Jesus said it, then backed it up with how His presence would separate us, cause division and strife. It doesn’t sound right, but fire is like that.
Fire, in the hands of an expert, also purifies. There are probably more references to God being like a metal refiner than we’d like to hear in one sitting, so I chose the one from the prophet Malachi: “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord.” Or as the Lord told us today on the lips of Jeremiah, “Is not My word like a fire?”
You see, the purifying fire of the Word of the Lord is a thing that the faithful long for but that the world cannot tolerate. As my father-in-law put it, “That fire (that purifying fire), obliterates the status quo. It brings conflict and division. Good cannot be at peace with evil. Light always drives away darkness. Anyone who acts and speaks like Jesus will find himself or herself at odds with the world.”
I’ve seen it, and it’s usually not pretty. I knew a young man who was raised in a wealthy household, the son of a dentist. A good home, a good family, good schools and a prosperous future all but locked-in, what with dental school on the horizon. The only thing missing in that household was faith; the man’s father was actually hostile to Christianity, and so things did not go so well when the young man let his father know that not only did he believe in Jesus, but that Jesus had changed his life, made him new, and that he was going to be, of all things, a priest. That young man was thrown out on his you-know-what; he was separated from his family, erased from his father’s will.
And so it does happen; maybe it’s happened to you. Because Jesus touches the roots of the problem, deep in the human heart. He interrupts our false peace; His holiness can’t help but point out all that is unholy in and around us, and in our blindness we think that He is the source of conflict, when it is really ourselves. The world wants us to believe that Jesus is the one who separates, when it is the really the world that can’t tolerate His presence in us.
If all of that seems like bad news, it’s really not. The good news is that the Word of God is like a fire, a fire reveals that which is perishable and that which is everlasting. That fire enables us to hear the Holy Spirit, to interpret the present time, to burn out what destroys us and set free all that makes us truly live.
Jesus knew that His presence would bring conflict, but He also knew that the only way we would ever know true peace, true solidarity, true love, was to be in His presence, to follow Him wherever He leads, to have our hearts kindled by His fire.