Sunday August 19, 2001 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Twentieth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I (Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10) Reading II (Hebrews 12:1-4)
Gospel (St. Luke 12:49-53)
Our Lord in the Gospel reading today tells us that He has come to set the earth on fire, and how He wishes it were blazing. The fire is the fire of divine love, but it is also a purifying fire. Scripture says of God: "He is a consuming fire." When we consider the fire that Jesus wants upon the earth, it is a fire that is going to be a saving fire, but it is also going to be a condemning fire. For those who refuse to believe in Christ, it will be a very obvious thing. When something is burning, when something is an inferno and blazing intensely, it is not something that anyone can just pass by and not notice. It is not like the faith in Jesus Christ is just sort of there in the background and you might not notice it; the fire of the love of God is evident in the world. The love of Jesus Christ, as He dies for us on the Cross, is placed before every single person. And it is not something that anyone can be nonchalant about - it is something that we either have to accept or reject. It is for this reason that the fire which comes forth from His Sacred Heart is either going to be a fire that will purify and save or a fire that will condemn. The choice is ours as to whether or not we are going to accept Him. So we need to make that choice. Every single person needs to make that choice.
The Lord tells us (as He is so apt to do, using irony) that He has come to light a fire and then He tells us that He is going to be baptized. We see the fire and the water. It does not make a whole lot of sense, if we think about it, because fire and water do not seem to work together; they would seem to be in opposition, but they are not at all because for each one of us it is already at work within. We are told by Our Lord that in Baptism there is a fire: the fire of the Holy Spirit, who has come down upon each one of us and has filled our hearts so that there is a fire within each one of us. Now, we can look and ask ourselves: Is it just a smoldering wick within us or is it a burning, intense inferno within each one of us? Once again, that choice lies with us.
The Holy Spirit has been poured forth into our hearts. We are reminded by Saint John the Baptist that when Jesus comes He is going to baptize with fire and with the Holy Spirit. John says, "I baptize you with water, but the One who is coming after me will baptize you with fire." So we have the baptism of water. The word "baptism" means to be cleansed, to be purified. We have been washed externally and that fire now burns on the inside to purify us internally. If your house were to start on fire today, there would not be anything left on the inside of your home. The fire purifies everything; it burns it all away. Think of the fires of Purgatory and what they do. For the souls in Purgatory, it burns. It is the purifying fire, not the condemning fire. It burns out from within them anything that is not of God. In that way, it is a purification; they are being cleansed. They are being baptized, if you will, in fire.
Now for us, we have that same choice. We have heard it said many times that we can do our purgatory here on earth, and indeed we can. If we are willing to accept a share in the suffering of Christ, if we are willing to embrace the Cross, if we are willing to walk the way of the Lord, then we too can be purified here - even to the point of perfection. What a beautiful thought: Even in this life, we can love God perfectly so that there is no more sin in the way, there is no more imperfection, there is just total and complete love. That is possible in each one of our lives. Throughout the course of history, only a handful of people have done that because most people are not willing to endure the sufferings which are required to get there.
Saint Paul talks about that for the people who begin to pull back (in other words, probably you and me), all of us who look to Heaven and say, "This is what I want." We look to the Cross and we see its value; then we look to ourselves and say, "But I'm not sure if I really want to do that." So Saint Paul says, "You are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses." Remember that the word "witness" in Greek is marturia - "You are surrounded by a cloud of martyrs." This is why he can say at the end of the reading: "In your struggle, you have not yet suffered to the point of shedding your blood." You are not yet a martyr for your faith. We see the number of martyrs for Christianity that there have been throughout the years. Remember that there were more martyrs in the twentieth century than in all of Christian history combined. So things are not getting easier for Christians in this world; they are getting more difficult. We are indeed surrounded, right up to our own day, by a true cloud of witnesses; by martyrs who are united with Christ and His suffering in the shedding of His blood and now in His glory in Heaven.
That spurs us on so that we can run, as Saint Paul says. Run - not just saunter towards Heaven, not meander, not walk - Run! It is to be able to see the goal, try to aim for it, and get there as quickly and as certainly as possible; not wandering here and there, taking a look at all the sights, but going in a straight line, sprinting toward eternity. The only way we can do that is to suffer, to take on our share of the Cross. That is the fire of love that the Lord wants burning within each one of us: a love that is so deep and so intense that we are willing to run to the Cross of Christ.
Now that really brings it to a head. Each one of us needs to ask ourselves very seriously, and I challenge you to look right at that Cross and ask yourself: "Am I willing to be up there with the Lord?" Not: "Am I willing to look at it from afar and say, 'Thank goodness Jesus did that so my soul can be saved.'" But rather look at that crucifix and ask yourself: "Am I willing to run to Calvary? Am I willing to climb up there and be nailed with Our Lord? Am I willing to be united with Him in His Crucifixion, in everything that it entails: in the entire Passion; in being rejected; in being nailed to the Cross? Am I willing to die for love of God?" That is the question that the Lord is putting to us today.
He has come to light a fire and on the day of our baptism, he lit that fire within us. A candle was handed to your godparents with a prayer that says they are to keep this fire burning bright. It is the fire of love and it is the fire of faith that has been enkindled within each one of our hearts. Again, we need to ask: "Is it burning brightly? Is it ablaze within our hearts, within our lives?"
As we mentioned at the beginning of the homily, if there is a building which is burning, or even if you have a large fire in your fireplace at home, you cannot miss it. So you can ask yourself the question I have asked so many times from this pulpit: When people look at you and they see your life, do they recognize that you are a Catholic? Do they see Jesus Christ at work within you? Or are you a person that they could walk by and not really notice? If they do not notice, the fire must not be burning too terribly bright. If they do not notice, maybe we are dealing with a smoldering wick that we need to nurse back into a flame and eventually get it to the point where it is blazing.
Again, we need to realize what that is going to mean. All we need to do, beyond looking at Our Lord's life, is look at the first reading and see what happened to the prophet Jeremiah. This is only one of the little incidents in Jeremiah's life. Because of the things that he was doing and because of his love for God, the people hated him. They went to the king and said, "Jeremiah needs to be put to death." They lower him down into the cistern and he sinks up to his waist in the mud. They are going to let him sit there and die. Are we willing to do whatever it requires? Are we willing to pay the price with Christ? Are we willing to be counted with Him and with that cloud of witnesses with which we are surrounded? Are we willing to suffer for Jesus Christ?
Look at the reading again from Saint Paul's Letter to the Hebrews; it says: "For the joy which lay before him, Christ endured the Cross, heedless of its shame." He accepted its suffering. He looked just beyond the physical cross and he looked at the salvation of humanity; He looked at eternity and Heaven; He looked at salvation and eternity for each one of us; and that was a joy that was beyond any shame that might be attached to the Cross. He threw off all of the natural level shame and He saw the Cross as the instrument of glory, not one of shame. That is why we hold that Cross high to this day.
We glory with Saint Paul in the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ through which, as Saint Paul says, "I have been crucified to the world, and the world has been crucified to me." And he says, "May I boast in nothing but the Cross of my Lord Jesus Christ." Can we say that? If that is the deepest attitude of our lives, then truly the fire of the love of God is burning brightly within our hearts. If we find ourselves shying away from the Cross - rather than running to the Cross, we run away from the Cross - then the fire of God is not burning very brightly within us.
We need to go back to that reading, look at it and say: "The Lord has come to start a fire, and how He desires that it would be ablaze!" He earnestly desires that fire within each one of us to be blazing brightly so that everyone will be able to see that we are united with Him; that we are willing to suffer with Him; that regardless of whatever shame the world may attach to anything, we will look beyond it and see the joy that is laid before us; that we will accept the sufferings in union with Christ and embrace them for the glory of God. The baptism needs to be fulfilled in each one of us and the fire needs to burn deeply and intensely within our hearts - the fire of the love of God, the fire which unites us to the Cross of Jesus Christ through which we have been crucified to the world, and the world to us.
Note: Father Altier does not write his homilies in advance, but relies solely upon the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.