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The Fire of God’s love and the division it establishes.

When we hear Jesus speak about setting the earth on fire and coming to establish not peace but division, it sounds out of character. Isn’t Jesus all about union and communion? It is the evil one who sows division. Isn’t “fire” the way the scripture describes the punishments of Hell? So what is Jesus saying? How can we understand his words? What Jesus says between the talk about setting the earth on fire and being source of division is the key to interpreting the passage. He says, “There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!” “Baptism” here is a reference to his death on the cross, the fullest expression of God’s love for us. Jesus deeply desires to love us to the end so that the Father’s saving love may be poured out into our hearts. He wants to set the earth on fire with God’s love. And when our hearts are filled with God’s love, they are purified. What is contrary to love is “burned away”. It is this burning love that divides us from whatever keeps us from Him – that keeps us from loving with all our heart. This love purifies our gaze so that we only have eyes for the beloved. The burning love clears out the clutter so one’s heart can be given more freely and completely to the beloved. It doesn’t mean that other relationships are necessarily bad, but when, for example, someone falls in love and gets married, a new relationship is formed that takes priority and reorients all the other relationships in that person’s life. If the spouse is not accepted by the person’s family, this new relationship will be a cause for division in the family. The spouse can be perfectly good, but what the new relationship often reveals through the division that follows is an unhealthy attachment within the original family unit. For example, a mother that has been possessive of her son. A father that has been overprotective and controlling toward his children. The burning fire of true love brings to light the disfunction of the original household and frees the person to love more fully and freely. It is a love that purifies and allows new life and love to grow and to flourish. In this sense, the division is not something that is bad but something that frees the person to love more fully and to grow in love. This is the kind of division of which Jesus speaks.
A friend of mine lost his wife about two years ago after nearly fifty years of marriage. A very devout man who was active in his parish, John recently told me how after his wife’s death, he was afraid of being “stuck” in his life as a widower. Not that there is anything wrong with being a widow or a widower, but he was concerned that because he loved his wife so much and that he was married so long, that he couldn’t go on or have a fulfilling life without her. A kind and generous man who is also handy at fixing things around the house, John went to help a friend he and his wife knew from their college days to install something in her house. This friend had been a widow for nearly twenty years. They began to hang out – catch a movie or a dinner here and there, and to his surprise, a new love was discovered. They are going to get married at the end of September. In preparation for the marriage, John is cleaning out his house and putting it up for sale. He told me how hard it has been to open up boxes and go through things he hasn’t looked at in more than thirty years. All these memories come flooding back to him. He said it is both agonizing and joyful. It is painful because it is a letting go – a purging, but it is joyful for the sake of what lies ahead. He is amazed that the love he had with his wife has not been lost but continues. It continues because it is of Christ and not of his own making. Because of this experience, he is not stuck but is persevering in running the race that lies before him, keeping his eyes fixed on Jesus. He’s not going to be as available as before to be that go-to babysitter for his daughter’s children, and that has caused a little division. Cleaning out his house, the home where he raised his family, has also been a little tougher on his children than on him. Is there new life after 70 and after the death of a spouse. John is a witness that there is, through the purifying fire of God’s love.
Let’s not be afraid of being stuck in the proverbial mud of life or be afraid of the fire of God’s love and the divisions it reveals. The Lord wishes to purify us and to set us free to love more fully and freely. He has a plan for our joy. We have been baptized into his death and resurrection. We are united to him and his purifying love. The crosses we endure are meant to divide us from what divides us from Christ. May we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith, and we will not grow weary and lose heart.

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