Do you think that Jesus got in trouble by being too mischievous as a little boy? Did he play with fire as a child? In today’s Gospel he said, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish that it were already blazing.” (Lk. 12:49) A literal translation is: “I have come to throw fire on the earth.”
As an adult, Jesus was a fire thrower. He was dangerous and disturbing. He could ‘put your feet to the fire.’ One day he said, “Follow me” to a potential disciple who responded by asking for permission to go and bury his father first. But Jesus replied, “Let the dead their dead, but you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” (Lk. 9:60) The man must have thought: “Seriously! Let the dead bury their dead! That’s your reply when I say that I want to go and bury my father?”
Good public speakers know how to get people’s attention with shocking images. Jesus was a master at it. But there was something more than just being a master communicator. He had a fire in his bones, and he threw that fire at others. His thought-provoking words reveal a fire burning deep inside. Jesus was a fire thrower.
We often think of him as a nice Jesus — loving, gentle, never speaking harshly. But at times, he was a tough Jesus, unnerving and disturbing. Today he tells us, “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three.” (Lk. 12:51-52)
Have you met Jesus, the fire thrower? John the Baptist said, “Someone is coming who is more powerful than me . . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” (Lk. 3:16) The fire of the Holy Spirit was alive in his heart. He was on fire with God’s presence, consumed with the fire of God’s love.
The fire of the Holy Spirit made Jesus fearless. He wasn’t afraid to offend anyone, not even his closest friends. It drove him to tell Peter, “Get behind me Satan. You are not thinking like God, but like human beings.” Yet, he also burned with the Father’s merciful love as he washed the feet of Peter.
Have you met Jesus, the fire thrower? He will put your feet to the fire. Yet, he will wash your feet and make them burn with mercy. Have you let the fire of his mercy wash over your heart?
He wanted one thing: to center our lives in the fiery love of the Father. That is what it means to be baptized. Baptism means to be dunked or immersed. Jesus said, “Baptize all nations in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Mt. 28:19) Literally, it means “immerse all people into the presence or name of the Father . . .”
When the baptismal candle is lit and handed to the parent of a child, or the baptized adult, the priest says, “Receive the Light of Christ. This light is entrusted to you to be kept burning brightly. This child (or adult) has been enlightened by Christ. He or she is to walk always as a child of the Light. May she keep the flame of faith alive in her heart.”
Do you live in the fire of your baptism, just as Jesus lived in the fire of the Father’s presence? Or is baptism something that happened to you with little consequence? Through baptism we become adopted children of God. The word ‘adoption’ emphasizes God’s merciful initiative in our lives. We do nothing to earn baptism. However, an adopted child can be a brat, with little appreciation for the gift. Lots of baptized Christians live like brats. They have not responded to the gift. They have not actualized their baptism.
What does it mean to actualize your baptism? Rather than using concepts to explain it, you might understand it better by example. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is a great example. She lived in the fire of the Father’s love.
Elizabeth Ann Seton’s family was among the wealthy of New York City in the late 1700’s. Her husband’s family owned a commercial shipping firm, and they associated with the upper crust. The Episcopal Bishop of New York City, who had presided over George Washington’s inaugural prayer service in 1789, conducted the Seton’s marriage ceremony. They were wealthy upper class early Americans.
However, her husband William became seriously ill. Hoping to recuperate, they went to Italy and stayed with Catholic friends whom they met in their business. But he died in Italy at the age of 36. She was 29 years old, with five children from two to nine years old.
Yet, during her stay in Italy, she was drawn to the Catholic faith. And within a year of returning to New York, she joined the Catholic Church. Catholics belonged to the lower class. They were thought of as poor, uneducated and unwashed (or dirty) because most of them were poor immigrants. Because of her conversion, the Seton family dropped all financial support. And she was shunned by most of her wealthy friends. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No I tell you, but rather division.”
She wrote in her diary, “I seek but God and his church, and expect to find my peace in them, not in the people.” When she received First Communion she said, “GOD IS MINE and I AM HIS.” The fire was burning brightly, and she began to throw fire. She was centered in God’s love, and it made her stand apart from others.
Soon she moved to Emmitsburg, MA where she started a school for poor girls, then she founded a religious order of Sisters to care for the children of the poor. That’s right. A widowed mother of five became a religious sister and foundress of a new religious community. The school she started was the first free Catholic school in the United States, and it marked the beginning of the Catholic school system in the USA.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton found a treasure in the Eucharist. That was where the fire of God burned for her. That was where she drew strength to throw fire. Have you let God’s love consume your heart? Do you throw fire?
Sometimes that means being tough with the people whom we love the most. But being tough is not the goal. The goal is to be on fire with love for God. When the fire of God burns in our hearts, it causes division. Are you willing to stand alone because the fire of God burns in your heart, like the prophet Jeremiah who was thrown into the cistern? They wanted to kill him. (Jer. 38:4-10)
As a new year of faith formation begins, how will you kindle the baptismal fire? How will you throw fire? Faith formation is not just for young people, but every single disciple.
For St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the fire was kindled with the Eucharist. It was the Word of God for Jeremiah. He wrote, “If I say, ‘I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,’ his word is in my heart like a fire shut up in my bones . . . I cannot hold it in.” (Jer. 20:9)
Have you actualized the fire of your baptism? “Be who God meant you to be, and you will set the whole world on fire!” – St. Catherine of Siena