Tending the flame


Only God can start a fire with water. In our gospel this weekend (Lk 12:49-53) Jesus tells his disciples “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” (which could also be translated “how I wish it were already kindled”).

What will spark this fire? How will Jesus kindle the blaze? We find out in the next verse: “there is a baptism with which I must be baptized.” The fire he has come to set will start with a baptism. This is not the baptism of John. It is the baptism of his passion.

Our own baptism is a share in the death and resurrection of Jesus (Rom 6:4; Col 2:12). Baptismal waters cast a fire on earth. They set a blaze wherever they flow. The waters of baptism kindle divine charity in the soul. It is a flame that needs tending. For though it is the spark of divine life, it is a fragile fire. It can go out.

Soil can put out a fire. The fire in our souls can be “choked by the anxieties and riches and pleasures of life” (Lk 8:14). God starts this fire with water, but we put it out with earth. Over and over again the scriptures admonish us to abandon sin and attachment to earthly possessions. The fire within us has an eagerness, an energy, which propels us forward in the race toward heaven. But clinging to this world slows us down. It dampens the flame.

In our second reading (Heb 12:1-4) we hear, “let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race…keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus.” This athletic imagery is intentional (see also 1Cor 9:24-25; Phil 3:14-15; 2Tim 4:7). Athletes are shaped by their goal. A desire burns within them. If they lose their discipline, if they are distracted with too many side-projects, or give up on their training in favor of self-indulgence, they will lose the competition. Divine charity requires a similar discipline, similar self-denial.

What do we do if the heat dies down? What if our zeal flags and temptation rises? What if opposition disheartens us? How do we sustain the fire? The best thing is to return to where the fire was fist kindled. Remember who started it. Remember the passion: “for the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross…Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb 12:3). Every fire needs a log to burn. For the fire within us, that log is the Cross.

Father George K. Nixon serves as assistant pastor at St. Philip Parish, Greenville. Ordained in 2011, he holds a licentiate in sacred theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. “Verbum Domini” is a series of Father Nixon’s reflections on the Scriptures.