Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time
August 18, 2019
First Reading: Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 40:2, 3, 4, 18
Second Reading: Hebrews 12:1-4
Gospel: Luke 12:49-53
If Jesus Christ is the Light of the World, his mission as a fire starter should not surprise us. Even if the image of Jesus, Builder of Blazes, seems more jarring to us than that of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, the ongoing work of the Church involves the preservation of fire as well as the pastoring of sheep. Fire starting persists as a ministry of the Church, and we see reminders of this in its liturgies. There is a long tradition of lighting lamps and candles as the sun’s light fades and the earth is enveloped in evening’s darkness while the faithful sing hymns of thanksgiving to Christ, our Light. Sacristans and altar servers light candles before every Mass. Then there is the Church’s annual “big blaze,” when at the Easter Vigil a new fire, ideally a “blazing fire” is kindled, blessed, and used to light the paschal candle whose flame will soon be shared with the entire assembly and most especially with the newly baptized on this night and on every other occasion of baptism throughout the coming year.
Presented with that small flame lit from a bigger flame lit from a fire that could spread to the whole world if left unchecked, they hear the words: “keep the flame of faith alive in your hearts.” The baptism with which Christ had to be baptized has now been accomplished; he has “endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God.” We who gather yearly at the juxtaposition of blazing fire and baptism are privileged to encounter, in microcosm, the mercy of burning and the renewal of the world. We remember Christ’s risen life from death and the fire that still burns in us who are formed by holy fire and invited to share in the resulting newness of life.
Fire can be a merciful eliminator of extraneous material, and exposure to the illuminating and purifying fire of God’s love could certainly help fulfill the exhortation made in the Letter to the Hebrews: “let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us.” Whatever does not serve us in “running the race that lies before us” is burned away for the sake of strengthening what can endure the heat and emerge transformed, purified, and perfected. Jesus’ words and actions might promote division and involve us who follow him in circumstances where we too have to endure opposition as we seek to continue the fire starting mission of “the leader and perfecter of faith.” However, the Holy Spirit, the third fiery member of the Trinity, unites those who are running the same race on the same team, even as we may be tempted to let internal, ecclesial divisions overpower and priorities and scandals and sin sidetrack us or cause us to stumble.
The renewing fire of faith is rekindled, preserved, and stoked in several ways at Mass for the sake of mission. We are “sparked” by God’s Word proclaimed; a new hearing of the Word of God is unleashed on the listening assembly and already begins to do something because God’s word is always effective. The homily continues and unfolds the proclamation of the Gospel and the other readings by helping the assembly gathered as the people of God and the Body of Christ in a very particular time and place begin to grapple with God’s flickering and fiery words as life-giving words addressed to us in our time and our place. The Prayer of the Faithful fuels minds and hearts in preparation for enacting Christ’s mission after leaving the church building, perhaps by inviting God to help us eliminate all divisions not rooted in our prophetic witness to the Gospel but rather in our own prejudices and preferences for what should be causing conflagrations in the world.
We eat bread doubly transformed by fire — first of the hearth and then of the Holy Spirit. (The Syrian tradition sometimes calls the Eucharist the “sacred coal” after the burning coal in the prophet Isaiah’s vision of heaven.) With the concluding rites, a changed people will be sent forth to light up the world. Those of us baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection are enabled to take up the fire setting mission of Jesus in this time between Pentecost and the Parousia. Blaze boldly!
Anne McGowan, PhD
Assistant Professor of Liturgy