“I have come to bring fire on the earth.”
So said Jesus. Bluntly. And unapologetically.
No less unsettling is what he says next:
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace on earth?”
How many of us, especially at this time of year, would take Jesus’ question as a no-brainer: with carols ringing in our ears, we reply, “Yes, of course, you came to bring ‘peace on earth and mercy mild.'”
But Jesus’ own answer startles:
“No, I tell you, but division.” He continues: “From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three.”
What are we to make of this Jesus who has come to bring “fire” (judgment?) and division–division in the home no less? (Jesus, it seems, came to ‘focus on the family’ in a most unexpected way.)
What is to be made of this angry, divisive, anti-family Jesus?
Here is how a world expert on severe emotional trauma starts his most recent work, which captures over 30 years of experience in caring for almost every kind of trauma patient–from veterans with PSTD to victims of sexual and physical abuse of all ages:
“One does not have to be a combat soldier, or visit a refugee camp in the Congo to encounter trauma. Trauma happens to us, our friends, our families, and our neighbors. Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shown that one in five Americans was sexually molested as a child; one in four was beaten by a parent to the point of a mark being left on their body; and one in three couples engages in physical violence. A quarter of us grew up with alcoholic relatives, and one out of eight witnessed their mother being beaten or hit.” (Bessel A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, p. 1.)
In short, for many Americans the home front is a battlefront.
Except the foe is in the family; the perpetrator is a parent, spouse or sibling. Far from being an anonymous adversary who forever fades away in the fog and friction of a firefight in a far off place, their offender has a name and a face that they will see the next day. And the day after . . . . A name and a face that can never be forgotten.
Their unspeakable affliction comes from one for whom they may have great affection.
And all this happens in the so-called “developed” world, with its high incomes, high-speed internet, and higher education. (I will leave it to the reader to explore statistics on domestic violence in the “developing” world.)
Later the author states:
“[These] traumatic experiences . . . leave traces, whether on a large scale (on our histories and cultures) or close to home, on our families, with dark secrets being imperceptibly passed through generations” (emphasis mine).
In similar fashion the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, declared, “A veil of silence covers violence against children, yes abuses are so pervasive that no country can ignore them, and no society can claim to be immune from them” (emphasis mine).
We live in a world of “dark secrets” that are shrouded in “a veil of silence.” These secrets are found not only (or even primarily) “out there” in corrupt politicians with their undisclosed tax returns or private email servers.
They are here in our families.
And these dark secrets, when kept by families (by force and fear), create a peace–a pretend peace, in which the one wronged is left feeling worthless (because, apparently, they’re not worth fighting for) and fearing that “it” was actually their fault (for their perpetrator went unprosecuted, and who else had a part to play?).
When Jesus enters the world, he says that he will have no part in such a pretend peace. He will divide.
It is why he has come.
Why? Out of love. A three-fold love:
First, out of a love for the wronged: truly they are worth it; for them Jesus is unflinchingly willing to cause a scene–not ruthlessly or recklessly but for redress and restitution and, Lord willing, reconciliation and restoration.
Second, out of a love for the wrongdoer: truly they will not win; and Jesus cares for them enough to confront them, not to humiliate but to offer real hope and true help. He is not afraid to be seen with them or to share–indeed, to bear–their shame.
Third, out of a love for righteousness: truly abuse is wicked, and it angers him enough to address it. Why? Because in the face of injustice, love is not apathetic (or “tolerant”), much less absent, but angry.
In the face of deep injustice, true love gets angry, angry enough to be divisive.
So in love Jesus has come to end our–my–pretend peace. The pretend peace of my personal hypocrisy. The pretend peace in our families, where abuse, manipulation, favoritism and exclusion get swept under the carpet. The pretend peace in our communities and culture (our pax americana), where greed, murder of the unborn, class struggle, the objectification of women, racism, and corruption hide behind manicured lawns and picket fences.
“I have come to bring fire upon the earth.”
But just what does this mean?
Within the traditional liturgical calendar, the third Sunday of Advent recalls the preparatory ministry of John the Baptist, for whom the following passage from the prophet Malachi is often read. The passage speaks of John’s preparatory ministry. Note especially how the imagery of fire is used. Israel’s God declares,
“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way for me. Then suddenly the Lord, whom you are seeking, will come to his temple . . . . But who can endure the day of his coming? For he will be like a refiner’s fire . . . . He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver.”
Here fire refines what is desirable (“silver”) yet has dross. The Lord will come, says the prophet, but he will come to refine what has great worth but also great unworthiness.
And this unworthiness cannot be merely rinsed off under the faucet; it must undergo a refining by fire.
But let us take the imagery of fire most seriously, just as John the Baptist does when describing Jesus’ ministry:
“He [that is, Jesus] will baptize [[i.e., purify / refine] you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
The very fire that at first refines can, if there is no repentance, finally ruin. The fire that comes first to cleanse can also in the end consume.
“I have come to bring fire on the earth.”
At times truly loving another is the most delightful thing in the world. But at other times truly loving another is the most difficult thing in the world. And it is very much the case, it seems, that Jesus considered this fiery, refining love to be the latter, in light of what he says next (and, incidentally, it gives us a rare window into our Lord’s emotional life):
“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”
In coming to end our pretend peace, Jesus finds no pleasure.
Unlike the fanatical police inspector Javert in Hugo’s Les Miserables, Jesus would strongly prefer that his confrontation of the world’s pretend peace were already over.
But, as if the crushing weight of a life of loving confrontation and conflict wasn’t taxing enough, Jesus goes on to say that each day of his life he has to look forward to only one thing: just as his ministry began with baptism, a baptism in which he was set apart to receive the good pleasure, presence and power of God, so his ministry would end with baptism, a baptism in which he would be stripped of all divine pleasure and presence and set apart only for punishment from God.
And so with no little angst Jesus declares:
“But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is completed.”
Jesus spent his entire life and ministry doing everything right, knowing that at its end his Father would treat him as if he had done everything wrong–all in the name of love.
Having come to bring the fire of divine refinement to those of great worth and great unworthiness, the only Worthy One would end up having the fire of divine rejection brought upon him, until its flames had been fully exhausted.
Is He not worthy of our worship?
Will we not answer the costly call of discipleship and follow Love–how?–by ending our own pretend peace, starting first in our families by owning the part we (as parents, spouses, or perhaps siblings) have played, whether proactively or passively, in creating such an oppressive peace? Let us be sober: if we now refuse his refining fire, how shall we escape his ruining fire? Love will not allow injustice to be forever unpaid for.
As victims, will we courageously defy our feelings and fears and seek the comfort and counsel of someone who can help us redress the wrongs done to us, believing that Jesus will be with us every step of the way?
In the second of T.S. Eliot’s set of four poems called “The Four Quartets,” he calls the reader to envision a “rustic” married couple dancing to pipe and drum in an open field around a bonfire late at night,
Holding each other by the hand or the arm
Which betokeneth concord. Round and round the fire
Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles,
Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter
Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,
Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth
Mirth of those long since under the earth
Nourishing the corn. Keeping time,
Keeping the rhythm in their dancing
As in their living in the living seasons . . . .
For Eliot this clumsy peasant couple clasping hands and keeping a rhythm accorded by ancient custom, represents ugly, outdated external constraint and confinement: “Round and round the fire / Leaping through the flames,” these simpletons are bound to get burned, lest they break free of their bonds of external constraint–epitomized in the institution of marriage.
For Eliot–at least at this stage in “The Four Quartets”–the fire (in the form of any sort of commitment-based relationship) is to be avoided at all costs.
But as Eliot leads the reader through the rest of the second, third and into the fourth and final “Quartet,” an incredible journey unfolds. And in the fourth section, Eliot takes the reader on a most unsettling, even terrifying preternatural walk in the black of night.
While living in London during World War II, Eliot had served as an air raid warden, making his rounds during the night in his assigned quarter to ensure that all lights in the great city were off (lights that would assist the attacking German air raid) and to give alert and assistance whenever exploding ordnances had created a fire.
Eliot summons the reader to imagine that late one night while on such a round he encounters in a dark alleyway the ghost of a former mentor and master, someone whose skill and literary achievement Eliot had greatly envied and imitated.
But to Eliot’s astonishment this ghost, as is evident from its “brown baked features,” has come from hell (the encounter echoes a scene in Dante’s Inferno). Engaging Eliot, the apparition, readily dismissive of all his former brilliant insights, urgently conveys to Eliot what he truly needs to hear–three words of uncommon wisdom known only to the decrepit and the dead.
But far from being three words of encouragement, they are words of strongest admonition, as the ghost warns him of three horrors that he himself has come to experience–namely, an inevitable and unenviable deterioration and division of body from soul, a useless “rage” against humanity’s stupidity, and (most of all) an unending “shame” and regret for one’s own innumerable wrongs. The ghost lists and describes each of these three:
First, the cold friction of expiring sense
Without enchantment, offering no promise
But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit
As body and soul begin to fall asunder.
Second, the conscious impotence of rage
At human folly, and the laceration
Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
And yet it is here that the ghost points Eliot to a way out of this ghastly doom, a way that points him–and the reader–back to the very imagery above. The ghost continues:
From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.
The ghost, then, holds out to the poet two paths: either he will continue on a path that celebrates self-autonomy and self-determination and despises constraint, yet leads ultimately only to decay, anger and unending self-contempt for injustices against others, OR he will learn to spend his life learning to dance–i.e., to move according to the rhythm and lead of Another–in a fire that will refine him.
Which will it be for Eliot? For you and for me?
As for Eliot, he goes on to tell us, speaking of the painfully refining, redeeming work of the Holy Spirit (portrayed as a dove), using imagery with which we are now familiar:
The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge [i.e., release] from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre–
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire [i.e., breathe]
Consumed by either fire or fire.
We, every last one of us, must choose, says Eliot, to be enveloped (“consumed”) by either the fire of refinement or the fire of ruin–the very fire that Jesus came to bring upon the earth.