“I came to cast fire upon the earth.” —Luke 12:49
Fire! What single word more immediately commands people’s attention? No sane and moral person would ever consider yelling the word fire in a public place, for fear of causing a panic.
Fire has tremendous power. It gives warmth and light, but its consuming heat also ignites virtually everything in its path.
One of the most curious and often vexing characteristics of fire is that it can be so difficult to kindle and also extremely difficult to extinguish. Countless campers have embarrassed themselves struggling to start campfires before the watchful eyes of their companions. And the difficulty of extinguishing large fires—wildfires that consume entire neighborhoods, for example—is a grim fact of life in places like California.
The Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus reveals God’s love as a fire that burns in the Heart of Jesus Christ. This feast day also reveals the eager desire of Jesus to spread His love over the entire face of the earth.
This is a time when many people feel imprisoned by doubt, fear, sickness, hatred, and division. Only Christ’s burning love offers the ultimate, perfect treatment for these diseases of the human soul. Pope Benedict XVI once called this fire, “Christ’s own passion of love” and “a fire that is to be handed on.” These designations provide an apt way of thinking about devotion to the Sacred Heart.
“Christ’s own passion of love”
Most artistic depictions of the Sacred Heart show it surrounded by His Crown of Thorns, with the Cross planted atop the Heart, a lance wound clearly visible on its side, and flames bursting forth from within the Heart and burning around the Cross.
These signs of Christ’s Passion and death show the exact kind of love that burns in the Heart of Jesus—crucified love, self-sacrificing love. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
The love the world celebrates is symbolized by a heart pierced by Cupid’s arrow. The love that saves us from sin and death is revealed in the Heart pierced by thorns and a lance. The world often says that “love is love,” but not all loves are the same.
The late and immensely talented singer Whitney Houston once sang that “learning to love yourself can be the greatest love of all.” Love of self has its place in human life, but it is not the greatest love of all.
The greatest love of all is that love by which the unthinkable happened, and became the defining truth of human existence: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). God took our human flesh and allowed it to be nailed to a cross in order to rescue us from hell. That is the greatest love possible, and it is the measure of all other loves.
Thomas á Kempis, in his Imitation of Christ, wrote these words about the crucified love of God at work in the heart of a Christian disciple:
Love is an excellent thing, a very great blessing, indeed. It makes every difficulty easy, and bears all wrongs with equanimity. For it bears a burden without being weighted and renders sweet all that is bitter. The noble love of Jesus spurs to great deeds and excites longing for that which is more perfect. Love tends upward; it will not be held down by anything low. Love wishes to be free and estranged from all worldly affections, lest its inward sight be obstructed, lest it be entangled in any temporal interest and overcome by adversity.
Nothing is sweeter than love, nothing stronger or higher or wider; nothing is more pleasant, nothing fuller, and nothing better in heaven or on earth, for love is born of God and cannot rest except in God, Who is above all created things.
One who is in love flies, runs, and rejoices; he is free, not bound. He gives all for all and possesses all in all, because he rests in the one sovereign Good, Who is above all things, and from Whom every good flows and proceeds. He does not look to the gift but turns himself above all gifts to the Giver.
Love often knows no limits but overflows all bounds. Love feels no burden, thinks nothing of troubles, attempts more than it is able, and does not plead impossibility, because it believes that it may and can do all things. For this reason, it is able to do all, performing and effecting much where he who does not love fails and falls. (Book III, Chapter Five)
Going back to the difficulty of kindling a fire, it was impossible for humanity to set the fire of God’s love ablaze. This supernatural fire required a supernatural source, and so the Son of God became man, and sacrificed Himself so that in and through His humanity he could cast the fire of His love upon the earth.
From His Heart the hearts of all who believe in Him become inflamed with the very same supernatural love. And the hearts of Christians are to serve as torches—or, better yet, flamethrowers—spreading the fire of Christ’s love everywhere.
“A fire that is to be handed on”
In order to spread the fire of Christ’s love, however, it is necessary to believe firmly in its power. Why bother to share something of little or no use? There would be little to motivate such sharing.
But Christ’s love is of infinite worth. And that is not something Christians tell themselves in order to justify their religion or to feel better about life. Christ’s love is of immediate and decisive consequence in the crises the world faces today. It is not some abstract concept or a spiritual warm blanket for those who need comfort.
The love of God revealed in Jesus Christ is the center of all things, the great reality at the heart of all of reality.
Like any fire, the fire of Christ’s love destroys, purifies, and gives warmth and light. It destroys sin and the reign of Satan in the hearts of men. It purifies human hearts so that they become fixed on love of God and neighbor. And it brings the warmth of friendship with God and the light of His truth to a world torn by hatred and blinded by the darkness of sin, prejudice, and ignorance.
This process of destruction, purification, and receiving warmth and light requires humility, because it involves self-surrender at the deepest possible level. It is not a negotiated surrender, but one that is unconditional. Yet is a surrender that brings not defeat, but victory.
Put most simply and practically, people could face COVID-19 with complete peace if their hearts burned with the love of Jesus Christ. There would be no racism, no hatred of police, and no unjust violence of any kind if the world were engulfed with the fire of Christ’s love.
The fire that burns in the Sacred Heart of Jesus can never be extinguished. In that sense, it is more out of man’s control than any wildfire. But the flames among us can fade if we neglect them. These flames seek fuel in order to grow and spread. That fuel is the human heart.
Hearts have grown cold and rejected God’s love. That is the first cause of all sin and fear, the cause of all the sorrows these strange months of 2020 have brought us. A COVID vaccine is needed. Renewal of race relations and relationships between police officers and citizens is needed. Sound laws and virtuous government officials who write and uphold these laws are needed. But what is needed more than anything is for the fire of Christ’s love to spread everywhere, to everyone.
In one of his sermons on the Sacred Heart, the Eucharist, and evangelization, entitled, “The Fire of Love,” Msgr. Ronald Knox describes the full-flowering of Eucharistic grace, and of Christ’s love in the hearts of His true disciples.
He begins with the early growth of the Church as recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, when the fire of Christ’s redemptive love, consummated on the Cross and communicated in the Eucharist, was beginning to spread through the apostles’ preaching and ministry:
So the flame that was kindled in the upper room swept through Jerusalem—three thousand souls that day, five thousand souls the next, brought under the influence of the holocaust of love which had been offered for them on Calvary. They continued daily, this multitude of believers, in the breaking of bread; the heart of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist fed the flame within them and made them in their turn missionaries for the faith they had received. The fire was spreading…
What need to follow the history of that conflagration further? Still, all down the centuries, the love that burns in the Sacred Heart has found in men’s hearts fresh fuel to catch its flame. Again and again, through the centuries, men have prophesied that the Christian faith was doomed: “the superstition”, they say to one another, “cannot last much longer; the blaze has lasted so many centuries; in time it must burn itself out”. They do not understand that though the flame of charity in our imperfect human souls seems here to mount, there to die down as the Spirit, blowing where he will, fans it or lets it smoulder, the heart of the blaze is something that glows white-hot with the interpenetrating glow which the Godhead communicates to it, inextinguishable and indefectible as the Being of God himself. Let them try to quench the flames, they will rise higher; let them wait to see the end of the conflagration, and it will burst out with fresh vigour where they least expected it. Our Lord Jesus Christ came to cast a fire on the earth; and what was his will but that it should be kindled? And what is his will, no human effort can gainsay.
As for us Christians, we will draw near to it. Oh, we are very cautious about it, some of us; we only just want to warm ourselves a little, we don’t want to get scorched with the flames. Or are we really Christians, when we calculate like that? Are we really Christians, when we think that the fire of divine love which beats in the Sacred Heart can destroy anything in us, except that base dross in our natures, that worldliness, that we should want to see purged away? It was not so that the saints understood the invitation of the Sacred Heart; they would not come near it hesitatingly and with calculation, as if to warm their hands at it. Rather, they would plunge themselves into that abyss of fire, to be refined of all that was unworthy, to be melted and moulded according to God’s plan, to become, themselves, glowing reflections of its heat to kindle the cold hearts of their fellow men.
Let us think what it is we want this divine flame of the Sacred Heart to do for us when we draw near to it, as we do draw near to it every time we receive our Lord in the Holy Eucharist…
If we want to bring others to the faith, if we want to reclaim others from lives of sin, if we want to bring up our children in the love of God, then the first thing is to burn red-hot with the love of God ourselves. And then, if it be his will, we shall be able to pass the conflagration on.
May the fire of God’s love spread in and through the Church today. If it will be so, it must begin with individual acts of self-surrender to Him. He will then make such disciples to be like Himself, so that they might share Him and the fire of His love with a world grown cold.
The love that fills the Sacred Heart of Jesus does not grow weak with age. We might sometimes feel stale, but divine love never grows stale, and a fresh outpouring is always available to us. Christ only asks that we not hoard this treasure greedily. He showed us His love on the cross, He gives us His love in the Eucharist, and He asks us to show others the same love, to heal a broken world by giving with the same measureless, self-sacrificial generosity. There is no better way to bring people to Christ, to fulfill the mission of the New Evangelization, to which the entire Church has been dedicated.
(Editor’s note: This essay was originally posted at CWR on June 23, 2020.)
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