In the Hebrew Scriptures, divine fire represents the presence of God. Sometimes fire composed God’s body, as in Ez 1:27 or 2 Sm 22:9. Sometimes, fire was all that appeared when God appeared, as in Ex 19:18 or Dt 4:11-12. Beings and objects of fire could visit the earth to accomplish the divine will, as in Ex 3:1-5 and 2 Kgs 2:11. Finally, fire was an essential component of worship, serving as a kind of gate that transmitted offerings from the earthly to the heavenly realm (Jgs 13:20; 2 Chr 7:1-3). In all these cases, fire represents divine presence and action.
‘I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!’ (Lk 12:49)
How has living the Gospel challenged and transformed you?
How can you challenge others with Christ’s words and example?
Divine fire always demanded a transformation and response. In some cases, an encounter with divine fire inspired deeper faith. Moses became a divine messenger after his encounter with the burning bush, and Israel’s encounter with divine fire at Carmel led them back to the faith of their ancestors. Divine fire protects Jerusalem in the prophecy of Zechariah (Zec 2:5), and fire purifies garments affected by leprosy (Lv 13:47-58). Those who approached God’s fiery presence impiously, however, found the experience destructive. Divine fire took the lives of Aaron’s sons (Lv 10:1-3) as well as the arrogant officers sent to arrest Elijah (2 Kgs 1:9-15). In each case, fire represents divine presence and elicits an irrevocable response from those who encounter it.
On his journey to Jerusalem, Jesus takes stock of the transformation and disruption that his ministry has caused, and he recognizes in it the effects of divine fire. The disciples who continue to follow him have grown stronger in faith and understanding. People from the crowds who turn to him for healing have came away whole. But more and more people are finding him a disruptive presence and rejecting him and his message. Like the divine fire of the Hebrew Bible, Jesus' presence elicits a response from all who encounter him.
Christ continues to challenge, reaching out today through the sacraments, the Scriptures, the church and the poor. In each case, the call requires conversion of heart. Many will find the Gospel’s affirmation that God is present and still at work to be deeply consoling. This consolation can free many from fear and transform them into servants of God’s kingdom.
For others, however, such an encounter will be disruptive. The peace that Christ offers does not affirm or support the status quo. Those of us who benefit from the world as it is may come away from Christ’s presence feeling scorched. If, through good discernment, we can recognize the divine presence even in those challenging encounters, we will find in it a divine fire that purifies and does not destroy.
Every heart turned to Christ brings a little more of the fiery divine presence into the world. In his own day, Jesus found that his words and actions burned some, but cleansed and inspired many others. Likewise, as we continue his mission today, we must remember the power of the message we bear. Bound up in every word is the divine presence that blazed on Sinai and transformed Israel. We are now God’s fire, purifying, healing, protecting and opening a way between heaven and earth.