Sunday, September 4, 2016

Fire, Baptism, and Division

XX Sunday of Ordinary Time—C
San Jose Parish 
Austin, TX

Today Jesus seems to be a bit off, unsettled, even upset or angry. Indeed, he seems to be suggesting division and strife in families and communities. It is hard to see in Jesus's words today the God of love, forgiveness, and mercy we know so well. Yet Jesus is revealing the love of our heavenly Father, for a good father always tells his children what is to come, what struggles or difficulties they will face, at least as best he knows them. Jesus is preparing us for the trials we will face due to our radical transformation through baptism.

Jesus speaks first of a fire, which He says He has come to cast upon the earth, and how He wishes it were already burning (Lk 12:49). Jesus is not speaking here of a physical fire. In the Old Testament, fire often indicated the presence of God. When Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt, the Lord God went before them as a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire at night, indicating the way before them (Cf. Ex 13:21-22). Eventually the Lord as a pillar of cloud descended upon the meeting tent and filled it with His glory, and “throughout all their journeys the cloud of the Lord was upon the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel” (Ex 40:38). As a reminder of God’s presence, Moses and Aaron placed lamp stands before the ark of the covenant, the iconic candelabras, which would remain in place even into the new Temple Solomon would build. 

In the New Testament fire continues to represent the abiding presence of God’s spirit most notably at Pentecost, when as if tongues of fire the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles in the upper room (Cf. Acts 2:3). This fire, then, that Jesus is speaking of is the Holy Spirit Himself, the presence of God, which He came to give to all. It is a spirit of love and passion for God. It is the Spirit of God dwelling within us, which purifies us and transforms us into children of God the Father. And how He wished it were already burning in our hearts!

Then, abruptly Jesus speaks of a baptism. Seeing as how we are deep into the Gospel of Luke, we may ask, ‘what baptism?’ since back in chapter 3 vv. 21-22 Jesus was already baptized by John the Baptist. Here the first reading is helpful. Jeremiah, after presenting the Word of the Lord which called for the surrender of the people, is taken captive and in a sense buried in a cistern, a water tank. Later he is retrieved, saved by the King before he dies of starvation. This watery tomb is no accident. There is a long tradition of people in the Old Testament being cast off into deep dark damp places. There is Joseph who is cast into a well by his brothers, Moses and the people who pass through the Red Sea, and most famously Jonah who spends three days in the belly of a whale. All of these burials in tombs of water are symbols, figures of baptism in which we are buried with Christ in the water and raised with Him to new life. Jesus is talking about that baptism which is His passion, death, and resurrection; He is foretelling His burial and resurrection from that tomb now made of stone. 

So we have fire, that is, the Holy Spirit, and a baptism, which is the death and resurrection of Christ. And these are not disconnected, for in baptism we receive the Holy Spirit, that fire, which is that new breathe of life by which we are resurrected as children of God. Indeed, John the Baptist in Luke’s gospel says, “I baptized you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming…he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Lk 3:16). Jesus, therefore, is connecting in a very profound way the fire of the Holy Spirit and the death and resurrection He will soon undergo, all of which we receive and enter into by baptism. St. Paul could not have put it any better when he said to the Romans: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom 6:3-5). This is our radical transformation: unity with the Risen Christ by the fire of the Holy Spirit in baptism. 

And so what now to make of that division? I mean, doesn’t Christ give peace to His disciples?—“my peace I give you, my peace I leave you.” Yes, He does. But be attentive to when and to how. Christ grants peace to His disciples after the resurrection, and as a preparation for Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit as of tongues of fire would descend upon them. Meaning, Christ established peace amongst His disciples after and during their radical transformation to Him by the fire of Holy Spirit in baptism. As a consequence, and think of what is going on around them, there is great division. The Pharisee, the Sadducees, the Romans, everyone is fighting and fighting them; there is immense division and strife swirling around them. This is the consequence of transformation, that is, a unity with the Risen Christ by fire of the Holy Spirit in Baptism. To put it simply, belief in the resurrection makes you different. 

When we think of division, familial division in our own lives we often bring to mind the decisions our loved one’s make, decisions that are contrary to the gospel, decisions that often break up the family, pitting parent against child, husband against wife, and sister against brother. We could just go along with them. Change our views just to accommodate them. But we cannot. These divisions are a consequence of belief in the resurrection, they are a consequence of being radically transformed by water and fire, baptism and the Holy Spirit. And how we wish it were so for our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, husbands and wives. This does not mean we should shun or distance ourselves from our loved one’s on account of these divisions. Quite the contrary. We should love them to the very end. Think again of the disciples, even Christ Himself. They continued to engage and to speak with those who had not yet accepted the teachings of the gospel. They relied on that inner peace given them by Christ and the Holy Spirit in their hearts and continued to love those who persecuted them, saying “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). They forgave them constantly and prayed for their conversion unceasingly. And we must do the same. 

A final look into this gospel reveals our greatest consolation, that is, the love of the Father speaking through Jesus. As I mentioned at the outset, Christ is preparing His disciples for the trials ahead, His passion and death, and subsequent resurrection. He does this frankly by telling them what lies ahead. Here He doesn’t sugar coat it or veil His language. He speaks in simple terms. There will be division. Some will believe in the resurrection and some will not, maybe even those closest to you. Here is the Father’s love. For a good father always tells His children what lies ahead. He prepares his children for the road and doesn’t leave them without his good council and sound advice, if even the kids don’t want to hear it. He does this with the hope that one day when life hits hard they will remember, that voice like a recorder will sound in their head, and they will heed his wisdom. Indeed, how comforting amidst crisis situations is the realization that ‘oh, he said this would happen.’ Here Christ is speaking the voice of the Father who loves His children very much, such that one day when strife and division come, even amidst the family, His children may stay strong without surprise.   

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