Opening reflection (taken from Magnificat magazine, www.magnificat.com): “I have come to set the world on fire.” Pope Benedict XVI wrote that the fire is Christ's own passion of love, “a fire that is to be handed on. Whoever comes close to Him must be prepared to be burned. This is a fire that makes things bright and pure and free and grand. Being a Christian, then, is daring to entrust oneself to this burning fire.” The fire is set ablaze when we speak the truth, like the prophet Jeremiah who is punished for it. “The message of the Church is there precisely in order to conflict with our behavior, to tear man out of his life of lies and to bring clarity and truth. Truth makes demands, and it also burns.” Christ comes to divide us from whatever divides us from him. We keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.
(This weekend's Scripture readings are available in the New American Bible translation at the Vatican’s English website at http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0839/_INDEX.HTM.)
First Reading: Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10 (Revised Standard Version)
A reading from the book of the prophet Jeremiah.
In those days, the princes said to the king of Judah, "Let this man be put to death, for he is weakening the hands of the soldiers who are left in this city, and the hands of all the people, by speaking such words to them. For this man is not seeking the welfare of this people, but their harm." King Zedekiah said, "Behold, he is in your hands; for the king can do nothing against you." So they took Jeremiah and cast him into the cistern of Malchiah, the king's son, which was in the court of the guard, letting Jeremiah down by ropes. And there was no water in the cistern, but only mire, and Jeremiah sank in the mire.
Ebed-melech, a court official, went from the king's house and said to the king, "My lord the king, these men have done evil in all that they did to Jeremiah the prophet by casting him into the cistern; and he will die there of hunger, for there is no bread left in the city." Then the king commanded Ebed-melech, the Ethiopian, "Take three men with you from here, and lift Jeremiah the prophet out of the cistern before he dies."
The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Meditation: This truly is one of the saddest scenes of the Old Testament. When Jesus spoke the words in this weekend's Gospel reading, and when He lamented about how poorly Jerusalem and its people had treated the prophets of God, the plight of Jeremiah in the literal bowels of the City of David almost certainly was on His mind.
Jeremiah was called by God as a youth to preach about the coming downfall of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. He knew from the start that he would suffer greatly for it. He watched good King Josiah, the devout monarch of his early ministry, die far too young opposing Egypt on the battlefield. Then he saw Josiah's sons, none of them truly devoted to God, lead Judah into the abyss. One son (Jehoahaz) was quickly exiled to Egypt; a second (Jehoiakim) aligned Judah with increasingly powerful Babylon, then tried to change his mind and watched King Nebuchadnezzar's armies descend upon Jerusalem. Jehoiakim didn't live to see the outcome of this first siege, but his young son (Jehoiachin) was exiled to Babylon shortly afterward (along with Daniel, Daniel's three friends, Ezekiel and thousands of others).
Zedekiah was the third son of Josiah to take the Judean throne – and the last son of David to rule the Chosen People on earth. Though he occasionally listened to Jeremiah, he was a weak man, easily swayed by the winds. All these years, Jeremiah had been proclaiming that exile was inevitable as the consequence of centuries of unfaithfulness to God. He made many political and religious enemies in the palace – enemies who kept encouraging Zedekiah to try one last time to break loose of Babylon's political yoke. The weak king yielded to them, and a furious Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem for many months, driving its people to starvation. With the long-promised disaster nearly at hand, Jeremiah counseled his people to accept God's judgment. But his enemies seized upon his words to literally hurl him into a deep, dark, muddy well.
In his moment of abandonment, Jeremiah is rescued by one faithful man – and he wasn't even a Jew. Ebed-melech had traveled all the way from Ethiopia, far south of Egypt in east-central Africa, to serve the Judean king. We don't hear of him again after this scene. But one can imagine Jeremiah, after he had been pulled out of the muck, thanking Ebed-melech and advising him to follow the God of Israel (if he wasn't already doing so). And maybe he even told this faithful Ethiopian about the Messiah that one day would come to deliver not only Israel but all people from their slavery to sin.
The destruction of Jerusalem and Solomon's Temple followed shortly after these events. Most likely Ebed-melech, not being a native Israelite, was permitted to go home. But perhaps the impulse that led him to rescue a prophet still reverberated six centuries later, when another Ethiopian sat along the road to Gaza, reading Isaiah's prophecies about the “Suffering Servant” and wondering what it all meant – until Philip the deacon came to him, taught him about the life, death and resurrection of Christ and baptized him into the New Israel, destined for the heavenly Jerusalem.
Second Reading: Hebrews 12:1-4
A reading from the letter to the Hebrews.
Brothers and sisters: Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.
The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Meditation: We heard the writer of Hebrews praise the faith of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Jacob in last weekend's second reading. He cited many more examples of faithful Old Testament figures in the verses between that reading and this one. Now he reminds his readers that they “are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” – an unequivocal testimony to the unity of the saints in heaven with those on earth in the Mystical Body of Christ. We have their prayers; we have the life, death and resurrection of the Messiah in whom they believed without seeing; we have the testimony of the inspired Word of God and the sacraments Christ instituted to strengthen us on our own journey of faith. How can we then surrender to the weaknesses of our fallen nature?
The last sentence is noteworthy on its own, for though we do not know who wrote Hebrews, the author repeatedly demonstrates an insider's knowledge of Judaism. His initial audience most likely was the Jerusalem community of Jewish Christians. The statement that they had not yet shed their blood suggests that Hebrews was written before Emperor Nero blamed Christians for the great Roman fire of 64 A.D. and outlawed the faith. Two years after that decree, the Jews revolted against the empire, and the Jerusalem Christians fled the city before the Roman legions besieged Jerusalem and eventually laid waste the city and destroyed the final Jewish Temple. Just a few years after these words were written, Jewish and Gentile Christians alike would begin to learn what it meant to suffer for their Lord.
Gospel: Luke 12:49-53
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke. Glory to You, O Lord.
Jesus said to his disciples, "I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division; for henceforth in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against her mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law."
The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to You, Lord Jesus Christ.
Meditation: Anyone who looks at the sad and numerous divisions among Christians – not only among families but between communities of believers – must admit the truth of Jesus' prophecy here. But one also should be struck by the passion with which our Lord speaks in this passage. What is the “fire” that He came to deliver? It's the fire of the Holy Spirit, who would descend upon the disciples at Pentecost and spread among untold millions of Jews and Gentiles from that day to this. Remember how Jesus said in the Upper Room that the Spirit could not come until after He completed His mission of redemption? The Passion is the “baptism” that Christ says awaits Him.
Ever since the Fall in Eden, God had longed with an all-consuming desire to reunite humanity with Himself. We see and hear this in the words of the Father's only-begotten Son. He doesn't just consent to the Father's will; He wants it to happen with every fiber of His fully human, fully divine nature! Even knowing that many humans will reject the free gift He burns to give, He plunges forward on His earthly road to Calvary. He knows that we can find the inspiration, the strength, the ability to take the same road to the “narrow gate” of heaven only through the example of His life as well as the perfect sacrifice of His death. Let us keep our eyes on the Old and New Testament saints and especially on the Son of Man as we journey toward heaven – and encourage our fellow men and women to join us on the way.
Close with individual prayer, followed by Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be