“I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!”
In a film released in 2004, Denzel Washington stars as John Creasy, a despondent former CIA operative/Force Recon Marine officer-turned-bodyguard. Creasey gets a shot at redemption when he is hired to protect the daughter of a wealthy businessman in Mexico City. When the nine-year-old girl is kidnapped and held for ransom, Washington’s character will stop at nothing to get the young girl back, even to the point (spoiler alert!) of giving his life in exchange for hers.
The name of the film is Man on Fire.
Jesus Christ clearly was a man on fire. He tells us so in today’s Gospel selection from Luke. All throughout the three years of his public ministry, Jesus demonstrated again and again to us that he would stop at nothing to proclaim the power and promise of the Kingdom of God – forgiving the sinner, healing the blind, lame and leprous, finding the lost, raising the lowly, humbling the proud and challenging the haughty. His efforts not only won him many friends, but also made him more than a few enemies. Undaunted by the challenges of his vocation, Jesus remained faithful to the work of redemption, even to the point of giving his very life for others.
Like Jesus himself, Anthony Claret was a man on fire. “He was born in Salient in Catalonia, Spain, in 1807, the son of a weaver. He took up weaving but then eventually decided to study for the priesthood. He desired to be a Jesuit, but ill health prevented this from happening. Undeterred, he was ordained as a secular priest. In 1849, he founded the Missionary Sons of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (known today as the Claretians) and the Apostolic Training Institute of the Immaculate Conception (known today as the Claretian nuns). From 1850 to 1857, Anthony served as the archbishop of Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. He returned to Spain to serve the court of Queen Isabella II as confessor and went into exile with her in 1868. In 1869 and 1870, Anthony participated in the First Vatican Council. Throughout his ministry in both Cuba and Spain, Anthony found himself at odds with secular forces and endured many trials for the sake of the Gospel. In 1869 and 1870, Anthony participated in the First Vatican Council. He died in the Cistercian monastery of Fontfroide in southern France on October 24, 1870.” (http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=1452)
Jesus wants us to be men and women on fire with the love of God and neighbor. Jesus wants us – his brothers and sisters – to be unrelenting in demonstrating in our own lives the power and promise of the Kingdom of God.
How can we get ‘fired up’ for the sake of the Gospel today?
“For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want.”
You can feel the frustration in Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Redeemed as he was by Jesus Christ, not only did Paul fail to do many of the things that he knew that he should have done, but also, he did many of the things that he knew that he shouldn’t have done. In another place Paul describes this disconnect as if having two men battling inside of him, each wrestling for dominance over the other.
In a letter to Peronne-Marie de Chatel (one of the four original members of the nascent Visitation congregation at Annecy who, notwithstanding her virtues and gifts, nevertheless experienced “discouragement, scruples and even moments of very human impatience and irritation,”), Francis de Sales wrote:“You are right when you say there are two people in you. One person is a bit touchy, resentful and ready to flare up if anyone crosses her; this is the daughter of Eve and therefore bad-tempered. The other person fully intends to belong totally to God and who, in order to be all His, wants to be simply humble and humbly gentle toward everyone…this is the daughter of the glorious Virgin Mary and therefore of good disposition. These two daughters of different mothers fight each other and the good-for-nothing one is so mean that the good one has a hard time defending herself; afterward, the poor dear thinks that she has been beaten and that the wicked one is stronger than she. Not at all! The wicked one is not stronger than you but is more brazen, perverse, unpredictable and stubborn and when you go off crying she is very happy because that’s just so much time wasted, and she is satisfied to make you lose time when she is unable to make you lose eternity.” “Do not be ashamed of all this, my dear daughter, any more than St. Paul who confesses that there were two men in him – one rebellious toward God, and the other obedient to God. Stir up your courage. Arm yourself with the patience that we should have toward ourselves.” (LSD, p. 164-165) Of course, there aren’t really two people battling inside of us trying to see who will win out! Thank God for that, because most days we have more than enough to handle with our singular personalities! Of course, it is discouraging when we don’t live up to God’s standards or our own. Of course, it is frustrating to make what often times appears to be little progress in the spiritual life. Of course, there’s more good that we should do and more evil that we should avoid. Rather than drive yourself crazy, gently – and firmly – follow Francis de Sales’ advice: “Stir up your courage. Arm yourself with patience that we should have toward ourselves.”
And - of course - with one another.
“The concern of the spirit is life…”
In a scene from the film Schindler’s List, Itzhak Stern (played by Sir Ben Kingsley) says the following about the names of the Jews whose safety the German industrialist is attempting to buy: “The list is an absolute good. The list is life. All around its margins lies the gulf.”
“Stern makes this pronouncement as he and Schindler complete Schindler’s list. The two men have been working all night, adding as many names as possible—everyone Schindler can afford to buy. The list stands on its own as unadulterated good, unaffected by the mystery behind Schindler’s motives and any other mitigating factor. It represents the life of the Jewish race. Stern is perhaps stating the obvious when he says this, but symbolically, the list is the essence of life itself and, obviously, stands in stark contrast to the Nazi lists of death.”
“In the second half of the quotation, Stern mentions more than the life the list represents. He mentions the ‘gulf’ that surrounds the list. The gulf is the millions of Jews who will not be saved, but rather are left in a real-life purgatory - held prisoner - awaiting either freedom or death. The goodness of the list does not cancel out the evil that befalls the victims of the Holocaust, but even a small goodness is total goodness. Acknowledging all those who cannot be saved intensifies the impact of the good of the list, impressing upon the viewer the power of Schindler’s deed.” (http://www.sparknotes.com/film/schindlerslist/quotes.html)
In the end, Oskar Schindler saved over 1,100 Jews from almost certain death at the hands of the Nazi killing machine. By contrast, contemporary estimates indicate that perhaps as many as 10 million less-fortunate Jews perished in the conflagration.
It is a powerful demonstration of how - to paraphrase the words of St. Paul – the spirit’s concern for life is not a numbers game. All life is sacred; every life matters and is worthy of being saved. (Hence another quote from the lips of Itzhak Stern: “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.”)
We can eschew the darkness of death, but it is far wiser - as we see so clearly in the life of Jesus – to do what we can to establish and grow the light of life. By dedicating ourselves to that same concern – for life – may we one day find our names written on another list.
In the Book of Life!
“The Lord hears the cry of the poor.”
The poor may not enjoy many things in life. However, that which they do possess – a special place in the heart and mind of God – stands head and shoulders above any earthy riches or wealth.
Scripture is clear and unambiguous: God has special concern for the plight of the poor and needy, for the want of the despairing and broken-hearted, for the anguish of the lost and forsaken, for the spirits of those who are crushed, for the life of the lonely, for the soul of the sinner.
Jesus embodies God’s love of the poor. While he reached out to people of all social, economic, ethnic and cultural classes, Jesus invested a significant amount of his time, his energy, his ministry – his love – with the impoverished, the reviled and the down-and-outs of his day. Jesus seems to have enjoyed the most success with the poor; he likewise seems to have felt most at home with them.
None of this love is lost on St. Francis de Sales. In his Introduction to the Devout Life, he wrote:
“We must practice real poverty in the midst of all the goods and riches God gives us. Frequently give up some of your property by giving it with a generous heart to the poor. To give away what we have is to impoverish ourselves in proportion as we give, and the more we give the poorer we become...Love the poor and love poverty, for it is by such love that we become truly poor...Be glad to see them in your own home and to visit with them in theirs. Be glad to talk to them and be pleased to have them near you in church, on the street and elsewhere. Be poor when conversing with them...but be rich in assisting them by sharing some of your more abundant goods with them.” (Intro III, 15)
Three aspects of De Sales’ observations are worth noting. First, to the extent that we reach out to the poor we come to know our own poverty, our own neediness, our own despair and our own misfortune. Francis noted: “We become like the things we love.” Our willingness to serve the poor puts us in touch with the poor in all of us.
Second, the plight of the poor is an unmistakable challenge for us to be generous: to give from our abundance and, even more demanding, to give from our own want and need.
Third, we must recognize the more subtle forms of poverty in our own homes, neighborhoods, classrooms and places of employment and not just the obvious ones on street corners, heating grates, or bus stations. We must recognize the heavenly riches of which we are all in need: care, kindness, forgiveness, friendship, truth, companionship, healing, understanding, reconciliation, honesty, faith, hope...and love.
Clearly, faithfully, lovingly, convincingly the Lord always hears the cry of the poor.
“He called his disciples to himself…”
Remember the hit TV comedy series Cheers? These are the words from the show’s theme song:
Making your way in the world today takes everything you've got. Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot. Wouldn't you like to get away? Sometimes you want to go here everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came. You wanna be where you can see, our troubles are all the same You wanna be where everybody knows your name. You wanna go where people know, people are all the same, You wanna go where everybody knows your name.
In today’s Gospel we hear that even Jesus knew that “making your way in the world…takes everything you’ve got” and that “taking a break from all your worries sure can help a lot”, so he went up to the top of a mountain by himself to spend time in prayer with his Father. The next day, he calls his disciples to himself and named his Apostles. And to this day – nearly two thousand years later – everybody knows their names.
Just today, how can we make a name for ourselves in the service of God and neighbor? Today, how can we treat others in ways that makes them “glad you came?”
"To what can I compare the Kingdom of God? It is like a mustard seed…”
It seems paradoxical that Jesus would describe something as vast as the Kingdom of God in terms of one of the smallest of all seeds: the mustard seed. Still, consider how St. Francis de Sales describes eternity in a letter to the Duc de Bellegarde (Peer and Master of the Horse at the courts of both Henri IV and Louis XIII of France):
“Keep your eyes steadfastly fixed on that blissful day of eternity towards which the course of years bears us on; and these as they pass, themselves pass us stage by stage until we reach the end of the road. But meanwhile, in these passing moments there lies enclosed as in a tiny kernel the seed of all eternity; and in our humble little works of devotion there lies hidden the prize of everlasting glory, and the little pains we take to serve God lead to the repose of a bliss that can never end...” (Stopp, Selected Letters, p. 236)
Indeed, the Kingdom of God is a big thing. In fact, it is the biggest and the broadest of all things. As Jesus reminds us, however – and as Francis de Sales underscores – sometimes the biggest of things come in very small, ordinary and everyday packages!
“We know that all things work for good for those who love God…”
We may take these words from Paul’s letter to the Romans on faith, but there are many times in our lives when – despite our best efforts to love God and, for that matter, our neighbor also – things not only don’t work for good, but also things don’t work out in ways that we would like.
At least, not on the surface, or not in the short run.
In a letter to her second daughter Francoise, St. Jane de Chantal wrote:
“If you can look beyond the ordinary and shifting events of life and consider the infinite blessings and consolations of eternity, you would find comfort in the midst of any and all reversals of fortune…Oh, when will we learn to be more attentive to the truths of our faith? When will we savor the tenderness of the Divine Will in all the events of our life, seeing in them only His good pleasure and His unchanging, mysterious love which is always concerned with our good, as much in prosperity as in adversity? Let us surrender ourselves lovingly to the will of our heavenly Father and cooperate with His plan to unite us ultimately to Himself. Courage! May you find strength in these thoughts.” (Stopp, Letters of Spiritual Direction, p. 216)
We know – or, at least, we deeply want to believe – that indeed “all things work for good for those who love God.”
Today, may we find consolation and encouragement from the words of St. Jane de Chantal (who knew more than her fair share of suffering, setback and loss) that all things do work out for good in the long haul even when it seems – in the short run, at least – that they don’t.