Fire was often used as a symbol of God’s presence in the Old Testament. Moses saw a bush burning without being consumed, and had his first encounter with God (Exodus 3). The message of God incarnate, Jesus, was uncompromising, because it was one of love, inspired by the Spirit. The Anglo-Saxon poem The Dream of the Rood speaks about Jesus as the young hero, clasping his cross. In today’s gospel, he was already courageously facing what lay before him and even embracing it.
The fire of love is not sentimental. In the first reading, the prophet Jeremiah - often called the weeping prophet because he mourned for his country but refused to preach platitudes, like the many false prophets - spoke for the Lord, even though he prophesied disaster; and he was condemned for upsetting people. Last week we celebrated the feast of Sister Benedicta Teresa of the Cross (Edith Stein). She was sent to her death in Auschwitz, because the Dutch bishops had condemned the persecution of the Jews and the Nazis retaliated by rounding up those who had converted to Christianity.
The extract from Luke is a paradox. Jesus talked very often about peace and told people not to be afraid. However, peace accompanies justice and challenges the status quo. The priestly class, whose members were often appointed by Herod, enjoyed a lavish lifestyle at the expense of the poor, who were heavily taxed. Archeologists have found evidence in their Jerusalem homes of mosaic floors, rich furnishings and fine tableware. It was worthwhile for them to collude with the Romans. Jesus would upset this comfortable existence and it was necessary therefore to get rid of him.