Jesus (in Luke) tells us this: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” For me, his words evoke pictures of forest fires, gas explosions, and what happened to our poor neighbor’s house down the street ~ ravaging flames and intense heat reducing things to ashes. By talking about casting fire on the earth, is this what Jesus had in mind? Did he come to burn and destroy? Or, has he come to ignite and light up what he touches? Since his next words refer to a Baptism that has yet to happen, we can tell that Jesus was not using words in an ordinary way.
Jesus’ talk of fire in connection with his vocation recalls an earlier prediction about the Messiah in Luke’s Gospel. John the Baptist told the crowds who had come out to see him, “I baptize you with water; but… he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to… gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” There – in just two sentences – we have both positive and negative images put side by side: fire as the sign of the Holy Spirit, as on the Day of Pentecost; but also fire as the unquenchable force that burns up everything useless, until it is nothing.
Now, as we observe every Ash Wednesday, fire starts with what is good and useful and reduces it to an ashen nothing. This fits our natural experience. Yet, for practicing Christians, the pattern is liturgically reversed. Starting as an ash-covered nothing on a particular Wednesday, you and I journey through the Paschal flame and the fire of Pentecost, into a season of Spirit-kindled life. Despite their obvious differences, the ravaging fire and the building-up fire belong together. We talk of things being engulfed by flames, or being overwhelmed by fire. We use those same words to speak of what water can do, of what floods can do. Jesus has come to flood the earth with the baptizing fire of the Holy Spirit. His fire can consume and destroy all that is opposed to God’s love. But the flames of his love are also like the fire that clears the forest floor for new growth, and the heat which releases pinecone seeds for a new generation of trees.
“…and how I wish it were already kindled!” Jesus expresses frustration because we so often treat the power of the Holy Spirit like we do the power of fire. Reducing both to small quantities, we make them harmless. Candles allow small bits of flame to lighten our tables; short prayers allow brief moments of grace to lighten our days. But tip the candle over so the fire catches the curtains, and suddenly we have a truly fearful situation. Perhaps we are intuitively aware of this, of how encountering the unleashed Spirit of God flowing through this world is equally powerful ~ an agent of change for which we are not fully prepared.
The image above is of James Tissot’s painting, Jesus Discourses With His Disciples. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, August 18, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here. Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.