A reflection on the Scripture readings for August 14, 2022, the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time.
“Francis, leave this place and set the world on fire!” These were the last words that St. Ignatius of Loyola spoke to St. Francis Xavier as he sent Francis to the missions in the Far East. Set the world on fire! But what is this fire? Jesus said, “I have come to set the earth on fire. How I wish it were already blazing!” The same fire which Jesus spoke of is the same fire that Ignatius told Francis to spread. Jesus came to set the earth on fire, the apostles spread the fire and the fire is still burning today. St. Ignatius received this fire, so did St. Francis Xavier. And they spread it to the world. What is this fire? This fire is the burning love of God; the fiery love of God that he has for each and every person.
Why does Jesus use the imagery of fire? In Scripture, fire is often a symbol of God’s presence. Think, for example, of when Moses encountered the Lord in the burning bush. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes that “our God is a consuming fire.” The image of fire helps us to meditate upon God’s love. Think about the qualities of fire: fire warms, fire burns, fire destroys, fire consumes, and fire spreads.
Fire warms. In the Collect of today’s liturgy we pray, “Fill our hearts, we pray, with the warmth of your love.” The love of God is a deeply personal love. He loves each one of us as if we were the only person who existed. God loves us intimately and personally. In a world that is often cold, his love warms and consoles us. He is with us always.
Fire burns. If we touch fire, we know that we will get burned. It is painful to touch. The love of God can also be painful. When we open our hearts to his love he will shed his light upon the areas in our lives that we need to change. Just as the love of a parent can be tough and can often seem to hurt more than help, so can God’s love be tough. His love may seem to hurt at times, especially if he is calling us to let go of things we may not want to relinquish.
Fire destroys. Each year, it seems, we see forest fires that devastate certain parts of the country. Fire destroys. It is the same with God’s love. His love does destroy. But it destroys the sin in our lives that keeps us from growing closer to him. We need the sins in our lives to be destroyed. And we can not do this by our own willpower. It is only God’s grace and love that will ultimately remove and purge what is keeping us from getting closer to him.
Fire consumes. Whatever is in the path of fire will be consumed. A tree in a forest, if in the path of a raging fire, will be consumed in minutes. The Lord wants us to be consumed by his love. He desires to pour his love into us so that we will love him with all our hearts, with all our minds and with all our strength. He desires nothing less than to transform us into his very presence. It is the fire of his love that accomplishes this.
Lastly, fire spreads. When we allow ourselves to be set on fire with the love of God we cannot help but to spread his love to everyone we meet. When his fiery love burns within us we cannot help but to spread his love to the world.
The Lord has a fiery love for each one of us. Jesus revealed that love to us in his suffering and death. How much does God burn with love for me? The Cross is the answer to that question. And we cannot remain indifferent before a love that is so great, before the burning love of Christ. Let us pray that the Lord will set our hearts on fire with his love. Do not be afraid to open your hearts to this love! Fire only affects us if we draw near to it. It is the same with God’s love: we will only experience the fiery personal love of God if we open our hearts to him.
“Francis, leave this place and set the world on fire.” Francis did set hearts on fire because he himself knew the burning love of God. The same command goes out to us today: Open your heart to the Lord’s love today and leave this place to set the world on fire.