Saturday, August 17, 2013

Homily: The 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Pentecost XIII Year C 2013

The 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Pentecost XIII Year C 2013

I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!

In the Gospel this Sunday Jesus teaches us about his Cross and Resurrection by means of three disturbing and troubling images: Fire, Baptism and Division

"Shouting fire in a crowded theater" is a popular metaphor for speech or actions made for the purpose of creating unnecessary panic. The phrase is taken from an opinion of  Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.'s opinion in a  Supreme Court case, which held that under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution there are limits to free speech. You cannot shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater, when there is no fire.

But Jesus shouts ‘fire’ because there is a fire, a fire which he is anxious to start.

a. In the Old Testament, fire is a symbol of God’s presence. Moses at the burning bush is a familiar example. As is the text: “The Lord our God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.”

In the New Testament, “fire” became a symbol of God’s cleansing, purification or transformation of a person by grace.  The best example, of course, is Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Spirit in tongues of fire on the apostles and all of us know the effect of this great event.

But above all fire is the fire of love. If we speak of human passion as hot, as heat, as burning, it is only because first Christians sang of divine love in this way:

Thy blessèd unction from above
Is comfort, life, and fire of love.

The Resurrection of Jesus is the Father catching up the Sacrifice of the Son into the fire, the ardor, of his own love: love for the Son and love for those for whom the Son died. So what Jesus is talking about, when he shouts ‘fire’ is simply his Passion and Resurrection, this is what he longed for.

Of course the human nature of Jesus recoiled from the pain and distress of the Crucifixion, from facing its own destruction. We see that in the Agony in the Garden. But more important was his longing to carry out the Oblation on our behalf, to unite us again in newness of life with the God who is our Source and Goal.

Today he says in advance of his crucifixion what he will say then: “I thirst.” It is not only a physical thirst, as Julian of Norwich says, but a ‘ghostly thirst’, that is a spiritual thirst for us and for our salvation.

b. This is borne out by what Jesus says next: “I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!”

Baptism like fire is a complex image: destructive and productive, dangerous and sustaining, death-dealing and life-giving. So when James and John ask that they may sit
one on the right and one on the left when Jesus enters into his glory, Jesus replies:
“Are you  able to drink the cup that I drink? or to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ Jesus tells them they will be baptized by his baptism, the baptism of blood.  As St. Paul asks “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?”  There is a close link between the catechumen being “buried” in water and rising with Christ and Jesus being “baptized”, immersed in his suffering and death on the way to resurrection.

The death and resurrection of Jesus is not just something we observe from afar or something that Jesus does for us without us. We are to share in the paschal mystery by taking up our cross and following him. Not only must he go to Jerusalem, be handed over, be crucified and rise on the third but we also must follow him and  like Jesus and with him we are to be caught up in the fire of the Father’s love.

c. Most disquieting of all we are told by Jesus that he has come not bring peace but division. This too is a direct reference to his death and resurrection. As Rene Girard understands the nature of religious sacrifice:  what happens is that the offering of a scapegoat, the ritual death of one man, brings peace to the community by uniting everyone against the victim. All against one.

This exactly what happens in the case of the crucifixion of Jesus. “Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that very day, for before this they had been at enmity with each other” St. Luke’s gospel tells us. Jew and Roman, Pharisee and Sadducee,  High Priest and mob, even Peter sand Pilate are united against Jesus.

Obviously there is a kind of peace which is not peace. In fact the peace of Herod and Pilate does not last and cannot last. The end result is the destruction of Jerusalem.  

But meanwhile the peace which Jesus brings comes quietly on Easter Evening in the upper room when the first words which the Risen Lord speaks twice to his disciples is: “Peace be with you.” Paradoxically it is peace which presupposes and demands division.

The Resurrection of Jesus challenges and disrupts the peace and unanimity of those who crucified the Lord. Now there is a minority report: Peter in the Act of the Apostles: “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it”.

We are the bearers of this minority report: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again! But we cannot just talk about it: we have to live it out as men for whom the Father has a burning love, as cross-bearers following Jesus and as those who know the peace which passeth all understanding.”

I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!

Some of the ideas in this homily were taken from Fr. Aidan Nichols O.P. “Peace on Earth?”

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