We have quite a change of scene in today’s gospel reading, which follows directly in Luke’s order after the encouraging exhortations we have heard over the past few weeks. Now Jesus is talking fire, baptism and division, and he is talking about these in relation to himself. These are what he must bring about. There is a sense of urgency. There is a sense of anxiety and stress.
‘Setting the world on fire’ is many times used as an attractive image of life, energy and enthusiasm for the spread of the gospel. We sing and pray, ‘send down the fire of your Spirit’, ‘enkindle in our hearts the fire of your love’. Fire can be that warm and glowing element that heats our bodies, cooks our food and bakes our bread.
None of the above, most likely, entered the minds of Jesus’ listeners when they heard him speak of fire. From their knowledge of their scriptures the image of fire conjured up other notions. It might have symbolized the power of God, and the presence of God as in the burning bush. It was also a symbol of judgment. In the scriptural images, fire often was a sign of punishment, such as the fire and brimstone levelled against Sodom and Gomorrah, or as in fire consuming the enemies. Jesus had already referred to fire as a consuming power. The chaff was thrown into the fire and burned as were the weeds that grew side by side with the wheat. The image of fire brought no warm glow, and the mention of fire was enough to put the fear of God in you.
No matter the fire, it always destroys and renews. Whether it is a wildfire or a controlled burning, there is something destroyed. Yet, the gift from the fire is the renewal of soil through the restoration of nutrients. There are seeds of some plants, such as the sequoia, that will lie dormant until their seed cases are broken down as a result of fire.
Such is the fire of Jesus. Such is the baptism or immersion through which he must pass. In a way, Jesus is talking of the passion, not just his but ours. It is the necessary passage to bring about God’s reign. But first it involves the burning out from our own souls that undergrowth which stifles the growth and becomes a hazard. We must face the division and separations within ourselves, before the dormant seed of God’s reign can sprout. Then we must be immersed in the fire frequently if we are to be successful sowers of the word of God.
Next time we sing ‘Send down the fire of your Spirit, let us get ready for the pain of the burns.
Elizabeth Ferguson, OP