The Word of God by which we have been instructed today is difficult, for it is a word of judgment which calls us to account. The words of Jesus speak of division and opposition. We must approach them carefully. The danger is a superficial approach which sees Jesus as wanting to divide people and set them against one another. He then rewards his own and condemns sinners. But how can this be good news for us, inasmuch as we are all sinners?
How, too, do we reconcile such a view of today’s gospel with other gospel passages, such as: God sent His Son into the world not to condemn the world but to save it; or: The Son of Man has come to gather into one the dispersed children of God; or the words of St. Paul: God has let us know the mystery of His purpose…to gather all things into one under Christ as head, everything in the heavens and everything on earth?
Jesus words to us today begin: I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing! This can seem to us a terrifying image of painful burning and destruction. But what if the fire he has come to cast on earth is the fire of charity, of love – a fire which refines by removing dross and impurities, a fire which melts what is frozen and warms what is chilled? It is, I suggest, such a fire in which Jesus first of all offered himself and was wholly consumed in death as reparation for our sins. For the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus Our Lord reveals a God unchanging and ever-faithful in love and endless in forgiveness. God loves sinners unceasingly. It is not God who condemns, but we who condemn ourselves by choosing love of self at the expense of God.
Thus Jesus does come for division, not as the one who divides, but as the one who reveals the ultimate truth about the world and human life; a truth which in many and varied ways we must decide either to accept or reject virtually every day of our lives. It is our acceptance or rejection of Truth which is the cause of division, and this division could be everlasting.
This is the meaning, I believe, of Jesus’ startling words to us today: Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. Jesus, I suggest, does not wish to offer us something so insignificant as a peace which is in fact an armed truce, full of tension, created by the covering over or ignoring of fundamental differences. While every other human being is to be respected as created by God in the divine image and likeness, sharing in the same human nature that the Savior assumed for our salvation, it demands insight and courage to know when toleration has become a mask for faintheartedness, and when charity demands that, in the words of the Apostle, we do the truth in love. Thus we reject the empty platitudes of our contemporary culture which say, “I am personally opposed to this that or the other thing, but I can’t impose my value on others”, or “I personally think that the exploitation of women and children in pornography to make lots of money is despicable, but this is a free country.” This is the kind of false peace from which Jesus wishes to save us. It is a false peace which corrupts freedom, which is the ability of the virtuous person always to choose what is good, into a mere synonym for license, which is the tendency in all of us to manipulate other people for our own gratification.
The peace which Jesus wishes to give is a peace the world is incapable of giving, the peace which is the solid tranquility of a good conscience which knows the right order of things. He comes to offer a life which is truly worth choosing, truly worth living, and even worth dying for, as he did himself, for the joy before him set, despising the cross and all its shame. It is what we prayed for, perhaps unwittingly, in the opening prayer of today’s Mass: “fill our hearts we pray with the warmth of your love, so that loving you in all things and above all things, we may attain your promises which surpass every human desire.” In this life, we love God primarily in and through other things, especially other people. But the Gospel raises the question before us today, “Do we really love God above all things?”
The consequences of our response to that question are illustrated for us in the Prophet Jeremiah, who became a source of division by witnessing to the truth against the people of Jerusalem, who disregarded God’s Covenant by oppressing the poor and by putting their security in their wealth and their alliances with foreign gods. It is illustrated for us by Ebed-melech, the court official who bravely confronted the king with the truth of Jeremiah’s innocence. It is illustrated for us in that great cloud of witnesses which surrounds us on every side and encourages us to rid ourselves of every burden and sin. We should realize, too, that we are ourselves a part of that great cloud of witnesses, we who are gathered here in this basilica today. Although we admit that our witness is often weak and fainthearted, we have nevertheless gathered on this day to be encouraged by our honoring the Lord’s resurrection and receiving his own body and blood to strengthen us. Let us then commit ourselves once again to follow Jesus for today, and seek to maintain that commitment in all choices through the week ahead, and not be too concerned with what comes later. Jesus, who came to cast fire on the earth, will use that fire to melt the ice of our fear and to light our way for this day and this week, and will most sure provide as well, in ways beyond our imagining now, for what will come later.
Abbot Placid Solari, O.S.B.
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