Opening the Word: Transforming fire

We are often tempted to believe we can, through hard work and ingenuity, achieve personal peace and physical comfort that will satisfy and make us whole. This pervasive premise is ultimately materialistic, as it denies the supernatural realm. There are even Christian variations of the promise of prosperity and fulfillment in this life, sometimes offered in sensationalized, “health-and-wealth” forms, but also in more sophisticated ways. Gauging the real source of peace and security in our lives is important. Closely related is deepening our understanding of what constitutes real peace and true security. Today’s readings offer excellent insights into this vital work of spiritual discernment.

Jeremiah was the son of a priest and apparently enjoyed a comfortable, happy childhood. Any such worldly peace vanished once he reluctantly accepted the call to be a prophet (Jer 1). For 50 years he offered warnings, exhortations and chastisements, for which he was consistently persecuted and mocked. He lived through the reigns of five kings, the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of Solomon’s temple; in short, he had an apparently thankless job during a seemingly hopeless time. He never enjoyed miraculous relief, and he rarely received encouragement or aid from countrymen. King Zedekiah, who was king when the Babylonians conquered Judah in 586 B.C., was so annoyed with Jeremiah that he had the prophet tossed in a mud-filled cistern and left to die. Jeremiah was saved through the intercession of a court official, and he was eventually interviewed secretly by the king (Jer 38:14ff) and kept in the court until Jerusalem fell (Jer 38:28). His story is grim in many ways, but it’s also a reminder that faithfulness to God is preferable to trying to ride the shifting winds of worldly favors and political agendas.

Jeremiah also is among the “so great a cloud of witnesses” mentioned in today’s second reading. As such, he accompanies us through the trials and temptations we face, and he points us, as all the saints do, to Jesus, “the leader and perfecter of faith.” Jeremiah is rightly understood as a foreshadow of Jesus: A prophet who was mocked, persecuted and treated unjustly.

But Jesus not only “endured the cross, despising its shame,” he also “has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God,” for he is the Incarnate Son of God. If the second Person of the Trinity was willing to suffer and die on our behalf, what are we willing to do in return? Fighting against sin, by God’s grace, is certainly necessary, for the children of God are called to die to everything that would keep us from the love of God.

Death to sin and self is described by Jesus in one word: Fire! “I have come to set the earth on fire,” he told the disciples, “and how I wish it were already blazing!” Joseph Dillersberger, in his commentary, “The Gospel of Saint Luke” (The Newman Press, 1958), wrote, “Every idea of the meaning of this fire falls short of the true meaning unless it be understood to include the reception of the Holy Ghost Himself.” This divine fire consumes what is weak and wanting while purifying and enlightening those who follow Christ. That can cause conflict and division, as Jesus warns. But this fire is life itself. “As fire transforms into itself everything it touches,” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “so the Holy Spirit transforms into the divine life whatever is subjected to his power” (No. 1127). 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.