In today’s Gospel our Lord speaks of his coming sacrifice – his Passion and Death – and of how he just can’t wait until it has come and his ordeal has happened.
If any of us knows that some pretty unpleasant experience is about to come our way – being interviewed, sitting an examination, undergoing an operation in hospital, it’s a natural reaction to count the hours until it’s all over. Yet this is almost exactly the opposite of what Jesus means. He is looking forward to something that, on the contrary, will last for ever because it will change him for ever.
What he is looking forward to is making himself the Victim of charity, the living Sacrifice that takes away the sins of the world. And there is a sense in which he never puts that Sacrifice behind him. When as the Risen One he shows himself to his disciples, his wounds have healed and yet they are still open. Put your hand into my side, he tells Thomas. In heaven, as the Lamb of God standing to make intercession for us, he still carries the marks of his wounds which are first and foremost wounds of love. The Sacrifice of the God-man on the Cross was done in love so that we might be reconciled with the Father. It was his way of showing in time the love for the Father which had always characterized him in eternity. But now it was done so as to make reparation for us and in that way to restore our dignity. It was going to be the most wonderful act in the history of the world and its essential gesture (if I can put it thus) would be prolonged as long as creation endures - which is indeed for evermore.
Of course the human nature of Jesus recoiled from the pain and distress of the Crucifixion, from facing its own destruction. We see that in the Agony in the Garden. But more important was his longing to carry out the Oblation on our behalf, to unite us again in newness of life with the God who is our Source and Goal.
From the death of the Son of God for our redemption, so Jesus says in today’s Gospel, fire will spread over all the earth. In Christian iconography, fire generally stands for love. Spiritual writers, therefore, sometimes speak of the Resurrection as the Father catching up the Sacrifice of the Son into the fire, the ardour, of his own love: love for the Son and love for those for whom the Son died. That would lead us to think of the fire Jesus speaks of as, like his Sacrifice itself, the love he will spread abroad in the world in all the works of love, the good deeds, people have done in his Name.
But in that case why does he also say he came to bring division, not peace on earth? To reach the true peace of the Son of God we often have to lose a false peace. Sometimes a shining light is a painful light, a searchlight that probes too far. There was hatred for the Redeemer and his mission, just as there is for the Church and hers. This why we should never be surprised at opposition and resistance to the Gospel message, which is less worrying than indifference. Opposition and resistance imply, at least, some sense of the magnitude of what Christian redemption is all about. People have a lot to lose here. The focus of their lives and aspirations, their sense of what counts in the present and can be expected from the future turns out – if revelation is true – to be very largely misconceived. Of course it is aggravating, and they want to hear no more of it, and if possible, to silence it at source.
And by the same token, the pettiness of much that passes for life and debate in the Church shrinks into an insignificance that is much to be desired. We must ask ourselves, What does the persecuted Church make of us?