Summary: We should understand that the fire Jesus wanted on the earth both purifies and activates Christians for mission.
Twentieth Sunday in Course 2013
Fire on the Earth
Fire on the earth, a baptism with which to be baptized, a shameful cross to be endured–those were the destinies that drove Jesus on as He fulfilled the Father’s will. Moreover, in our own ways those are the destinies that beckon us to fulfill the Father’s will. And, in this Eucharist, we receive the divine power, the Christ-won grace, to perseveringly run the race that has been set for us in this life.
One of the sayings of Jesus recorded more than once in the Gospels had always puzzled me. When Jesus spoke of the suffering and death he would endure, and climaxed those predictions with a prediction of His resurrection, he said that just as Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and nights, so He would be in the belly of the earth three days and nights. But the Gospels also tell us that Jesus was buried on the Preparation day for Passover, and rose sometime in the morning of the day after Passover. So, using our current day names, He was buried on Friday and rose on Sunday. So it appears that He was in the earth only Friday and Saturday night.
Our passage from Jeremiah today helps us understand what really happened, if we also visit in spirit the city of Jerusalem. Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Olives on Thursday evening. He was then dragged off to the house of Caiaphas, the High Priest, where the Sanhedrin condemned Him. If you visit the Church of Gallicantu in Jerusalem, you will go down into the old cistern that had been converted into a holding cell. That literally feels like the bowels of the earth–dark as death. So Jesus, like Jeremiah, spent one night alive in the belly of the earth, and two nights dead while His soul visited the just souls who were awaiting their Redemption.
Jeremiah had engaged in politically incorrect speech. For his entire prophetic career he warned king and upper class and the common people that they were on the wrong path. Instead of trusting God and worshiping Him alone, they were seeking peace and security by foreign alliances–with Egypt mostly–and worshiping the gods of the countries they were allied with. Moreover, he inveighed against the oppression of the poor by the rich. Jeremiah was a constant scold, to the extent that there was a constant call for his execution by the politicians. He would not stop talking about their duties to the God who had led them out of Egypt, and who had saved them countless times by mighty miracles.
Jesus, too, was the master of politically incorrect speech. To the Pharisees He preached the message of God’s compassion, that following the smallest command of the Law, without having pity on poor sinners, was not God’s will. To the Sadducees He taught justice for the little guy, and purity of worship, and hope of the Resurrection of the dead. To the Zealot He counseled patience with the Roman oppressors, and forgiveness of enemies. None of them wanted to hear it. All of them wanted Jesus dead.
What did Jesus want? He wanted the original will of the Father to be done on earth. He wanted justice for the poor, and right worship for everyone. He wanted unity in God’s people, and the Gentiles to come to a knowledge and love of the One God of compassion. He wanted us to be united by the Holy Spirit, who is Love, even as Father and Son are united by the Holy Spirit. That is why we pray today “through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit–one God forever.”
This is the fire that Jesus wanted and wants today to fill the earth–a fire in the heart of every human being from our earliest age. But Jesus had to undergo an immersion–that’s what “baptism” means–in suffering a death before it could be kindled. That He did–sacrificing Himself once for all of us in a bloody manner so that we could offer an unbloody re-presentation of that sacrifice at this altar, and share His Risen Body and Blood together for our nourishment. He knew that this is the only way God’s plan could be fulfilled. He knew that each of us, filled with the Holy Spirit, could then attract all we encounter to the Body of Christ, the Church. This is why at the Easter Vigil the Christ candle is lit, and then ignites each of our candles as we spread that light through the whole Church. It is a symbol of what we are supposed to be doing every day–spreading the light of Christ and the fire of the Holy Spirit.