The Catholic Liturgy for the 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Aug. 18, 2019. Gospel – Luke 12:49-53. Theme: Fire & Division?
Today’s gospel can be quite a contrast to our traditional image of Jesus! Where is the meek and mild gentle Jesus of our Christmas carols? The Jesus who commands us to turn the other cheek and love our enemies? The Jesus whom Isaiah calls the Prince of Peace? The impression of Jesus we encounter in today’s Gospel seems so very different, what with talking about setting the world on fire and saying that he has “not come to bring peace but division”.
But we have to remember that, when Jesus became a human being he entered into a specific time of history and into a specific culture which became his own. And so, we hear him today speaking as a 1st century Jew using a very common Hebrew form of over-emphasis and exaggeration in order to prove his point. Translated roughly into 21st century English, what he is saying is this: “If you would be a Christian in actuality and not just in name only, your relationship with me must take priority over every other relationship even if this causes difficulty.”
I personally know of couples where only one spouse is a devout believer while the other is not so much or even not at all, and who struggles to understand the commitment of the other, sometimes causing friction as each Sunday approaches. Or of parents at odds with a child who has abandoned the faith of their baptism and has taken up a lifestyle diametrically opposed to Christianity. Or of siblings who ridicule one of their own brood because of his or her adherence to the teachings of the Catholic Church.
I’m sure many of you have encountered or perhaps are even now experiencing such things. We all know that there are times in life when we just have to make a choice and take a stand. We have to be strong in our convictions and firm in our faith but in a way that does not intentionally attack or offend others. And the key word here is intentionally, because it is impossible to live in peace with everyone, but the first one we must live in peace with is God.
But this challenge of faith in our relationships is nothing new. Ever since the earliest days of Christianity, there have been many who have been shunned, disowned or even martyred by their own families because of their conviction for Christ, fidelity to his Word, and obedience to God’s commandments. Someone who always comes to my mind in this topic of maintaining the priority of our relationship with Christ is a teenage martyr of the 7th century to whom I am very devoted: her name is St. Dymphna.
I wish she was better known in our times because she is a saint we need so much today. She is the patron saint of emotional and mental health, and a powerful intercessor with Christ for such things as nervousness, anxiety, panic, depression, suicide, phobias, eating disorders, addictions and co-dependency. Dymphna was a living example of today’s gospel and she paid the ultimate price for the sake of her commitment to God over family, as difficult as it was for her to do. (To hear her story, listen to audio homily).
But that isn’t the full story of St. Dymphna. But before going on with it, I want to recall another strange thing Jesus says to us today. He informs us that he wants to set a blazing fire on the earth! This fire is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, who enables us to maintain the priority of our relationship with Christ. And by doing so, the Spirit empowers us to influence others and be a force for good in our surroundings. This is what Jesus means by setting the fire ablaze. The fire unleashed through St. Dymphna in the village of Geel is still burning 1,500 years after her martyrdom, which brings us to the rest of her amazing story. (Listen to audio homily for the rest of her story)
By clinging jealously to our relationship with Christ like St. Dymphna did, and by opening our hearts to the fire-power of the Spirit, we can move out of our mediocrity and lukewarm existence as Christians. We can be truly transformed from the inside out and become instruments of peace and justice, leaving our mark in the world just as she did.
For more information about St. Dymphna, prayers and religious articles of her, go to this link to her National Shrine in the USA: https://natlshrinestdymphna.org/site/