“I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing… Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” Coming from the Lord who is meek and humble of heart, these tough words are not only frightening but surprising. St. Paul tells us that Jesus is “himself our peace” (Eph 2: 14). His birth was proclaimed by the angels as the dawning of “[God’s] Glory in the highest and Peace on earth…” Peace was the first fruit of the resurrection. “Peace be with you!” were the first words of the risen Lord to his apostles, holed up in the upper room. If Jesus came to bring peace, how do we understand then what he is telling us in today’s gospel?
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” (Jn 14:27). The peace of Jesus is altogether different from that of the world. It is not a facile thing that settles for mere “peaceful co-existence.” It is not synonymous with absence of war or conflict. On the contrary, the peace of Christ inevitably invites conflict for it is the result of a constant battle against evil. If Christ is himself our peace, his peace is founded on God who is truth and love. Hence, authentic peace is not possible where there is untruth, violence and injustice. These are the obstacles of peace that Jesus came to set on fire.
I’m reminded of a good Sister who once asked me to anoint a sick woman living alone in a remote barrio. When we arrived at the shack, I instinctively stepped back for I could not bear the stench of the place. Sister then suggested that I return home, while she would remain to clean up the place and prepare the old woman for the sacraments. When I returned after two days, I found the place well cleaned and the patient fully ready. After giving the sacraments, I asked Sister what happened. She told me that when she cleaned the old woman, she found her back all eaten up by worms. She had been lying in bed for days on her body wastes and fluids. Sister had to disinfect the entire hut and burn all her linens and clothes, including her bamboo bed.
(An aside. On our way home, I asked Sister how she managed to accomplish such an extraordinary courageous act. Was there a time she felt like giving up? She said that many times she wanted to give up. “What sustained you?” I asked. “I just tried to imagine every time that I was doing it for Jesus.” “You were not imagining, Sister,” I told her. “It was Jesus.”)
The fire that Jesus came to bring is the fire that burns all hatred, lies and viciousness. Thus, the peace of Christ is possible only in the context of conversion. It probes beneath the superficial compromises of inoffensive Christianity and draws the deep-seated malice, prejudice and selfishness in us to the surface for confrontation and healing. In the process, it invites opposition and division which reaches even in the families. For while love for family is a holy duty, it can never take precedence over love for God and love for Christ.
(Another aside. Like the peace of Christ, the unity so much sought today is possible only when it is founded on truth and love. It is naïve to say that all we need is to move on and leave the past behind. Authentic unity cannot stand on the ground of lies and injustice.)
The fire that Jesus speaks of most fittingly applies to the fire of the Holy Spirit. It is he who purifies and renews us. He is the fire that burns all our selfishness and sinfulness and transforms us according to the plan of God, according to his original order.
St. Augustine defines peace as “tranquilitas ordinis” (the tranquility of order). Peace is the result of the order put by God in creation (the higher above the lower, spirit above matter, Creator above creature, etc.) When God created the world, there was peace until the order set by God was disturbed and destroyed by the sin of Adam and Eve (man wanted to be above God…). Peace can only be achieved when the original order of God is put back in place.