What Does It Mean to Be on Fire with Faith?

Sunday’s Gospel reading was a palpably unnerving one. One subject to misunderstanding, even, I suspect, temptations to frustration and anger. From Luke:

Jesus said to his disciples:
“I have come to set the earth on fire,
and how I wish it were already blazing!
There is a baptism with which I must be baptized,
and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!
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;
a father will be divided against his son
and a son against his father,
a mother against her daughter
and a daughter against her mother,
a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”

Christ divides? What about peace and love? What about joy? And He wants to divide us from those we most love? Wassup?

In a commentary in the monthly devotional magazine, Magnificat, Fr. Robert Barron writes: “Just about the worst thing we can do with Jesus is to domesticate him, to turn him into a nice, harmless figure, simply a teller of tales and wise spiritual teacher.”

“Jesus’ purpose was to set the human race on fire with the Holy Spirit, and that fire would burn away the chaff of sin, corruption, cruelty, and violence,” he continues. In order for “the Kingdom of God to emerge,” Fr. Barron explains: “all dysfunctional forms of human community have to give way. If a family or society or culture is predicated upon manipulation, games of domination, arrogance, and fear, then it has to be undermined, cleared away.”

We must be changed. Or how will we ever live differently? How will they ever know we are Christians? We will forget what it is to be Christian, if we descend into practical atheism, content to believe that’s enough. That’s where we frequently find the personal and public witness of Catholics, don’t we? This is what gives rise to scandal. This is why people “fall away.”

“The domesticated Church makes no demands,” Fr. Barron concludes. “The real Christ burns and divides — in order to make all things new.”

Another homily, from Fr. Roger Landry of Fall River, Mass., points to the dangers of going lukewarm:

“There’s a passion of ours,” Pope Benedict said, “that must grow from faith, which must be transformed into the fire of charity. Jesus said: ‘I came to cast fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled.’ Origen [the great third century theologian] has conveyed us a word of the Lord: “Whoever is near me is near the fire.” The Christian must not be lukewarm. The Book of Revelation tells us that this is the greatest danger for a Christian: not that he may say ‘no,’ but that he may say a very lukewarm ‘yes.’ This being lukewarm is what discredits Christianity. Faith must become in us flame of love, flame that really fires up my being, becomes the great passion of my being, and so it fires also my neighbor.”

The divine arsonist saves our souls!

Unpacking B16 a bit, Fr. Landry writes:

First, to be near Christ, Pope Benedict stresses, is to be near the fire. If we’re truly drawing close to Christ in prayer, in the Sacraments of the Eucharist and Confession, in charity toward others, in the communion that is the Church, then we can’t help but get fired up. The problem is that often we draw near to God with asbestos around our hearts. We don’t draw near with the love we should. We can say our prayers, but rush through them without love. We show up to Mass, but leave our enthusiasm at home, coming out of duty, or habit, or human respect, or because someone else makes us come, our heart’s not here. We should be more passionate about God speaking to us and feeding us at Mass …

Second, Pope Benedict, not one for hyperbole, says that lukewarmness is the “greatest danger for a Christian,” that we give only a half-hearted yes with a shrug of our shoulders to God and the gift of his love… Pope Benedict says that lukewarmness is what discredits Christianity more than any thing else. … When non-Catholics encounter lukewarm Catholics…they easily lose respect for Church teaching and for Catholics in general. When children have lukewarm Catholic parents who don’t pray with them, who don’t take them to confession and Mass, who place soccer games as more important than religious instruction, the faith is easily discredited.

Lukewarmness is, Benedict emphasized, the greatest danger for a Christian and what discredits Christianity most. Therefore it is one of the biggest problems facing the Catholic Church as a whole and therefore every Catholic diocese and every Catholic parish, including our own. We need to confront it straight on. Once upon a time, there was a notion that all a Catholic needed to do was “pray, pay and obey.” That was always inadequate. Nowadays there’s a sense that a Catholic doesn’t need to anything at all, even come to Mass, even live by the ten commandments or get married in the Church in order to be considered a Catholic in good standing. That’s obviously inadequate too. Today Jesus is telling each of us that what he wants of us, what he expects of us, is that we will be zealous, fervent, impassioned, avid, energetic and totally committed to him in faith and to the life and mission he has given us.

Christ wants us focused on Him. So that we won’t be distracted. So that our lives are in Divine order. So that we know who it is this day we will serve. And where our destination is, always headed there, helping one another there.

If we believe, and receive, there is a desire for a deepened faith, one rests in a hope that’s contagious, that gives us an ever-deepening confidence.The second reading from Hebrews Sunday helps here. Reminding us that there is a “cloud of witnesses” praying us on, whose holy lives we can emulate, with God’s help in the Sacraments, even as they intercede so that even as we fall, we get back up with God’s grace.

Today’s Gospel reading returns to a theme from Sunday, about lightening the load. Our ardor should be such that we want nothing to do with that which weighs us down. That doesn’t mean shirking responsibilities but knowing our vocation and fulfilling it with love, always working to discern God’s call and following Him faithfully, trusting His guidance as we face obstacles and challenges.

And so we ask God to bring us deeper into the flame of faith — that light that illuminates everything, as Lumen Fidei puts it — so that we might set the world ablaze with His purifying love and peace. As the Collect Sunday put it:

O God, who have prepared for those who love you good things which no eye can see,
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.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

A reliable prayer for help with the ardor is:

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth.

O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations, Through Christ Our Lord, Amen.

George Weigel sums it up quite well in his Evangelical Catholicism: “Lukewarm Catholicism has no future; submitting to the transforming fire of the Holy Spirit is no longer optional.” What are we waiting for, we have a wedding feast to get to — and bring others, too!

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