• Jer 38:4-6, 8-10
• Ps 40:2, 3, 4, 18
• Heb 12:1-4
• Lk 12:49-53
In the summer of 2007, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released a document containing “responses to some questions regarding certain aspects of the doctrine of the Church.” It carefully re-articulated some important Catholic teachings about the nature of the Church, meant to help Catholics avoid various “erroneous interpretations which in turn give rise to confusion and doubt.”
Predictably, many media outlets sensationalized the contents of the document and ran headlines such as “Vatican hits ‘wounded’ Christian churches,” as though the teaching “that the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church” is somehow new to the Vatican, the pope, or Catholicism. Of course, it isn’t. Yet that didn’t keep some Catholics from expressing their outrage at the supposed “intolerance” coming from a backwards and “polarizing” Pope Benedict XVI.
One Catholic, in a letter to the editor of the Detroit Free Press, lamented what he described as the “believe-what-we-say-or-leave’” mentality of the Catholic Church. “I hope all of us will start acting more like Jesus…”, he wrote, “simply passing along love, peace and goodness to others.”
That letter writer would do well to read both the document he wrongly criticized and today’s Gospel reading, which describes Jesus explaining that He has “come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” This is a reference back to the third chapter of Luke’s Gospel and John the Baptist’s explanation that the Messiah “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” and that He will burn the chaff “with unquenchable fire” (Lk 3:16-17). Like the prophet Elijah, who called down fire from heaven to consume his enemies (2 Kgs 1:10-14), the presence of Jesus often caused violence and disturbance—not because He opposed love and peace, but because the destruction of evil and sin demanded a violent, active love. Only through bloodshed and sacrifice will peace be fully established, and then only at the end of time.
Many theologians and authors have tried in recent decades to warp the Gospels and remake Jesus into a sort of mild-mannered self-help guru who never uttered a disturbing word or made a shocking comment. Yet Jesus stated that He would bring division, even among families, setting parents against children. This is painful to consider, but it has often been the case: sometimes the one who enters the family of God must turn his back on father, mother, and siblings.
To take up modern terminology, Jesus came to apply shock therapy to the ailing hearts and souls of those lost in sin. The fire that He gave—and continues to give through His Church and the sacraments—is the burning life and the transforming energy of the Holy Spirit, which consumes what is weak and wanting while purifying and enlightening the minds of those who follow Him. “As fire transforms into itself everything it touches,” remarks the Catechism, “so the Holy Spirit transforms into the divine life whatever is subjected to his power” (CCC 1127; cf. 696).
That transformation is ultimately an all-or-nothing reality; there is, in fact, a “believe-what-we-say-or-leave” aspect to Catholicism, although it is far better expressed as “believe-what-He-says-or-leave”. Jesus causes division and brings unity for one and the same reason: He is both the scandal that divides and the Savior who unites. The bloody Cross is the scarlet line that separates and a steady tie that binds.
As the Letter to the Hebrews states today, the Cross is shameful to many. But for those who have their eyes fixed on Jesus, the Cross is the ladder to joy and life. The theologian Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar, in reflecting on martyrdom and the cost of discipleship, once wrote that the “only valid response” to the death of Christ on the Cross “is to be prepared to die for him, and even more, to be dead in him.” Through that death comes real peace; in that death we experience true and abiding love. Yes, indeed, let us start acting more like Jesus!
(This “Opening the Word” originally appeared in a slightly different form in the August 19, 2007, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)