On Fire with Faith, 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C), August 18, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
August 18, 2013
Jer 38:4-6.8-10, Ps 40, Heb 12:1-4, Lk 12:49-53

To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click here: 

Jesus, The Holy Arsonist

Today Jesus emphatically tells us in the Gospel why he left heaven, became man, lived, preached, suffered, was murdered, rose and ascended. It’s something every Catholic needs to ponder deeply, prayerfully and frequently. “I have come to set the earth on fire,” Jesus says, “and how I wish it were already blazing!” Just like the Holy Spirit was sent down as tongues of fire to ignite the members of the early Church with the passion to live and preach the Gospel until the ends of the earth, Jesus came down with the same holy ardor, the same white hot love, to make us his torch bearers and set the world ablaze with the light of his truth and the fire of his mercy. He wants to do to us in life what happens symbolically at our baptism and is renewed every year at the Easter Vigil, when Jesus, symbolized as the flame of the Paschal Candle, comes to light us — symbolized by a taper or our baptismal candle — on fire with true Christian combustion and make us living tapers, who receive the flame of faith from him and then pass on that passion to those around us.

One of the chief purposes of the Year of Faith in which we’re now gracefully engaged is to light us on fire with the living flame of love for God who passionate loves us so much as to be crucified to redeem us.

The danger of lukewarmness

Four days before the Year of Faith began last October, Pope Benedict, commenting on Jesus’ words from the Gospel today, spoke about the fire of faith and how important it is for each of us to allow the Holy Spirit to melt whatever in us is cold or frozen. In doing so he pointed out the greatest danger for us as Christian disciples and the biggest obstacle to our proclaiming the faith and bringing people to Christ. What he said may surprise you.

“There’s a passion of ours,” Pope Benedict said, “that must grow from faith, which must be transformed into the fire of charity. Jesus said: ‘I came to cast fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled.’ Origen [the great third century theologian] has conveyed us a word of the Lord: “Whoever is near me is near the fire.” The Christian must not be lukewarm. The Book of Revelation tells us that this is the greatest danger for a Christian: not that he may say ‘no,’ but that he may say a very lukewarm ‘yes.’ This being lukewarm is what discredits Christianity. Faith must become in us flame of love, flame that really fires up my being, becomes the great passion of my being, and so it fires also my neighbor.”

Benedict said a lot and it’s very important for us to break it down.

First, to be near Christ, Pope Benedict stresses, is to be near the fire. If we’re truly drawing close to Christ in prayer, in the Sacraments of the Eucharist and Confession, in charity toward others, in the communion that is the Church, then we can’t help but get fired up. The problem is that often we draw near to God with asbestos around our hearts. We don’t draw near with the love we should. We can say our prayers, but rush through them without love. We show up to Mass, but leave our enthusiasm at home, coming out of duty, or habit, or human respect, or because someone else makes us come, our heart’s not here. We should be more passionate about God speaking to us and feeding us at Mass than the biggest Red Sox fans rejoice to be at Fenway for the World Series, blowing our lungs out cheering, not caring if the game time stretches well into extra innings, sharing an experience we’ll treasure for the rest of our life with the other fans around us.  The fact that few of us do is a sign of tepidity.

Second, Pope Benedict, not one for hyperbole, says that lukewarmness is the “greatest danger for a Christian,” that we give only a half-hearted yes with a shrug of our shoulders to God and the gift of his love. Pope Benedict makes this conclusion based on what Jesus himself said in the Book of Revelation, speaking to the Church in Laodicea, which many commentators have said seems to bear much in common with the United States today. Jesus says, “To the angel of the church in La-odicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation. ‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.’’ Then he says why, “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, that you may be rich, and white garments to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, that you may see.” We’ll return to an explanation of Jesus’ words in just a second, but before we do, I want to point out the third thing Pope Benedict mention.

Third, Pope Benedict says that lukewarmness is what discredits Christianity more than any thing else. It’s like a contagious cold of the faith that we pass on to others. People expect that Catholic clergy, religious and faithful will take the faith seriously and really seek to love God with all their hearts, minds, souls and strength and love their neighbor. They expect that Catholics who profess that Sacred Scripture is God’s holy word will actually out of love for God to know that word inside out, rather than barely know it or ignore it together. They anticipate that Catholics who profess that Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, is really present in the Holy Eucharist, would never place something else on Sunday above God. They anticipate that Catholics who believe in the importance of all seven sacraments will take confession seriously and go regularly, confirmation seriously and not delay it, marriage seriously and not live as others do, the anointing of the sick seriously and call the priest whenever they or others get in danger of death. They expects that Catholics will go way beyond the call of duty to cross the road and care for others as good Samaritans. They are counting on Catholics to obey Church teaching as expressed by the Pope and the Bishops on matters like care for immigrants and the poor, on marriage, on abortion, and other topics. When non-Catholics encounter lukewarm Catholics, however, they easily lose respect for Church teaching and for Catholics in general. When children have lukewarm Catholic parents who don’t pray with them, who don’t take them to confession and Mass, who place soccer games as more important than religious instruction, the faith is easily discredited.

Lukewarmness is, Benedict emphasized, the greatest danger for a Christian and what discredits Christianity most. Therefore it is one of the biggest problems facing the Catholic Church as a whole and therefore every Catholic diocese and every Catholic parish, including our own. We need to confront it straight on. Once upon a time, there was a notion that all a Catholic needed to do was “pray, pay and obey.” That was always inadequate. Nowadays there’s a sense that a Catholic doesn’t need to anything at all, even come to Mass, even live by the ten commandments or get married in the Church in order to be considered a Catholic in good standing. That’s obviously inadequate too. Today Jesus is telling each of us that what he wants of us, what he expects of us, is that we will be zealous, fervent, impassioned, avid, energetic and totally committed to him in faith and to the life and mission he has given us. Jesus is likewise telling us as a parish that he wants St. Bernadette’s to be on fire with love of him and love of others with him.

The causes of lukewarmness

What we need to confront are the reasons why we can become lukewarm. I saw “become lukewarm” because very few of us are lukewarm on the day of our First Communion, just like very few priests are tepid on the day of their ordination. But something happens to us. We lose the fire we once had. We lose the passion. I think we can specify three reasons why so many of us and our fellow Catholics become tepid in our prayer, in our sacramental life, in our charity, and in our whole Christian existence.

Jesus gave us the first reason in the passage from the Book of Revelation we considered a little earlier. We lose the sense that we really need God in our lives, or need him very much. “You say,” Jesus tells them, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing” and we begin to prioritize our relationship with mammon rather than God. We fail to see, Jesus points out, that we are poor in need of Jesus’ gold refined by fire, that we’re naked in need of his white garments, that we’re blind in need of his salve on our eyes. We don’t recognize we’re drowning and need a Savior who loves us so much that he will leap into the water all the way from heaven to give his life in order to save our own. Materialism, what Pope Francis calls “spiritual worldliness,” makes us lukewarm.

The second reason why many of us are resistant to allowing Jesus truly to light us on fire is because we’re afraid that if we draw too close to Him who is the Fire of the Father’s love, we’ll lose something essential about who we really are. Pope Benedict spoke about this back in 2010 in words I’ve never forgotten and I hope you’ll never forget. “The fire of God,” he said, “is that of the bush that burned without being consumed (cf. Exodus 3:2). It is a flame that burns but does not destroy, that, in burning, brings forth the better and truer part of man, as in a fusion it makes his interior form emerge, his vocation to truth and to love. … Nevertheless it causes a transformation, and it must for this reason consume something in man, the waste that corrupts him and hinders his relations with God and neighbor. This effect of the divine fire … frightens us, we are afraid of being ‘burned,’ we prefer to stay just as we are. This is because our life is often formed according to the logic of having, of possessing and not the logic of self-giving [love]. Many people believe in God and admire the person of Jesus Christ, but when they are asked to lose something of themselves, then they retreat, they are afraid of the demands of faith. There is the fear of giving up something nice to which we are attached; the fear that following Christ deprives us of freedom, of certain experiences, of a part of ourselves. On one hand, we want to be with Jesus, follow him closely, and, on the other hand, we are afraid of the consequences that this brings with it.”

The third reason is because we’re afraid of what others will do or say if we really live the faith with fire. In today’s Gospel, right after having told us that he has come to light us and the whole world on fire, Jesus says that because of him, families will be divided two against three in various ways. This is not because Jesus came to bring division, but because when some in a family really put him first, love him above other loves, and treat him as God, others who want to be first, who want to be in God’s place, get jealous — and it’s that sinful pride and envy that severs relationship. One of the things that lukewarm Christians in a home hate most is not sin but when someone converts and really gets lit on fire, because that exposes everyone else’s tepidity. The same thing can happen in parishes, when the temperature of a long-time parishioner’s faith increases and that person starts inviting others to take their faith more seriously, or when a new priest arrives and starts confronting lukewarmness and its various disguises, many people don’t like it, will start to complain and some will even leave, because they prefer a place that allows them continue to be stay the same, that refuses to challenge them, rather than dares them to become the Good Samaritan, Good Shepherd and great Saint God wants them to be. The truth is that too many Catholic parishes and too many Catholic homes are lukewarm and that’s the way many prefer them to remain. When someone tries to bring the fire of Christ to that home, division ensues, not because of the fire, but because of the ice. Regardless, however, those who don’t prefer the semblance of peace instead of the true peace that comes from God may hesitate to allow the Lord to upgrade their faith because they don’t want to deal with the suffering. Pope Benedict, however, encourages us not to be afraid of the Cross, which, although painful, leads to salvation: “We must know how to recognize that losing something, indeed, losing ourselves for the true God, the God of love and of life, is in reality gaining ourselves, finding ourselves more fully. Whoever entrusts himself to Jesus already experiences in this life peace and joy of heart, which the world cannot give, and it cannot even take it away once God has given it to us. So it is worthwhile to let ourselves be touched by the fire of [God]! The suffering that it causes us is necessary for our transformation. It is the reality of the cross: It is not for nothing that in the language of Jesus ‘fire’ is above all a representation of the cross, without which Christianity does not exist.”

The saints are the opposite of the lukewarm

God has created us for no other reason than to become a saint and the saints are those who have allowed God to light them on fire, to burn away their interior dross and impurities, to make them shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.  In today’s second reading the Letter to the Hebrews describes the great saints of the Old Testament — to which we could add an even greater multitude from the new — as a “cloud of witnesses” that surround us, cheering us on to victory, like the fans in a stadium cheer on marathon runners finishing the last couple of miles toward Olympic gold. The saints are the ones who show us how to run the race of life with passion, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the guide and perfecter of our faith. The saints are those who teach us, as we see with Jeremiah in the first reading and in the life of Jesus and so many martyrs, how to endure the Cross, to despise its shame, and to move forward with zeal for the sake of the joy that lies before us. They intercede for us that we “may not grow weary and lose heart,” or quit in the “struggle against sin,” or recoil even if we’re called to shed our blood. They reveal to us that when we grow close to God, we approach the fire, who in turn ignites us to live in and share the fire of his love. They were not afraid to allow God to make them living flames of his love. They are, therefore, the total opposite of the lukewarm, even though many of them, just like many of us, at times lived through periods of tepidity. They want to surround us with the same fire they received from the Lord, so that the whole Church on earth, united to the Church in heaven, might become one great bonfire to God’s glory.

Warming others’ hearts

To recover this sense of fire in the Church, in our parish, in each of our hearts, is one of the most urgent things we need to do for the present and the future of the Church. Three weeks ago when Pope Francis was in Brazil, he met with the bishops in order to discuss the terrible problem that the Church is hemorrhaging Catholics in Latin America, to fired-up Pentecostal sects as well as to nothing. So many have left the Church because they didn’t find the fire of God’s love where they expected it, and so they went to where they seemed to find it or just gave up on finding it altogether. What Pope Francis says about the situation in South America is just as applicable to our situation in the United States where there are 30 million ex-Catholics, basically one out of every ten citizens. He described the problem as well as the solution by saying we all have to learn from how Jesus came to bring his fire to the disciples on the Road to Emmaus.

In Emmaus, Jesus encountered two dejected disciples abandoning Jerusalem and all that Jerusalem represented. They had placed their hopes in Jesus only to be scandalized and humiliated by his crucifixion. Jesus met them on the road leading downward from Jerusalem and entered into their conversation concerning recent events. He didn’t halt them in their tracks and command them to turn around at the risk of their eternal salvation. Rather, he accompanied them, and with the help of Old Testament prophecies, tried to shed light on what they had observed and what they had obviously missed. As he spoke to them, their hearts began to burn, such that they begged him to stay with them longer. When he celebrated the Eucharist for them in their home, they now were able to recognize him, and with enthusiasm ran out into the darkness up the seven miles to Jerusalem from which they had descended to share with ardor the news of risen Jesus with others.

Pope Francis declared that today multitudes are wandering on roads away from everything “Jerusalem” signifies, from “Scripture, catechesis, sacraments, community, friendship with the Lord, Mary and the apostles.” So many have placed their hopes in the Christ the Church was offering, only to discover disappointment.  “Perhaps,” the Pope specified, “the Church appeared too weak, perhaps too distant from their needs, perhaps too poor to respond to their concerns, perhaps too cold, perhaps too caught up with itself, perhaps a prisoner of its own rigid formulas, perhaps the world seems to have made the Church a relic of the past, unfit for new questions, perhaps the Church could speak to people in their infancy but not to those come of age.” Regardless, vast hordes, Francis said, are walking away into the night, seeking someone or something else in which to place their hopes. The Church must be capable, like Christ, of “going forth into their night, … meeting them on their way, … [and] entering into their conversation.” We have to do more than walk at their side and listen to them. We must be able “to make sense of the ‘night’ contained in the flight of so many of [them] from Jerusalem” and realize that “the reasons why people leave also contain reasons why they can eventually return.”

The most important thing of all, Pope Francis said, is that the the Church, like Jesus, needs to be capable of “warming hearts,” of addressing the “disappointments present in their hearts” and show how they are paradoxically part of the redemption. We need to be capable of warming hearts. But he asked the bishops and all of us to ponder before the Lord, “Are we still a Church capable of warming hearts?” Do we still have that fire? Is the heat of our love for God within, and the heat of the indwelling of God’s love within us through grace, strong enough to make others’ hearts burn?

Today, Eastern Avenue is the Road to Emmaus. Jesus has come here wanting to light our hearts ablaze and make us capable of going out and meeting others walking on paths away from God, away from the Church he founded, and help warm their hearts so that they might rediscover Christ and the brilliance of his light, the hearth of his love and be transformed to run to back to Church and tell everyone that Christ is more alive than ever. The whole mission of salvation begins with our being ignited and then going out as living tapers to light others, including those whose wicks have long ago been extinguished.

Ingesting the Fire

The greatest way of all God has established to inflame us is at Mass. Whoever draws near Christ draws near the fire, Origen said in the third century. If that’s true, then all the more Christ says to us, “Whoever receives me, receives the fire.” Whenever we receive Jesus in Holy Communion, we ingest Fire. Christ has come to ignite that fire and how he wants each of us to become truly enkindled! St. Catherine of Siena used to say in the 1300s, “If you are what you should be, you will set the world ablaze!” Mass is the place where Christ helps us to become who we should be. As we prepare to receive him today, we beg the great cloud of witnesses surrounding us now to pray for us that we may be enveloped by fire, always burn with love to the glory of God, and bring that flame of faith out to warm others hearts and fill Fall River and the whole world with the fire of God’s amazing love.