In Rome, just a few blocks from the Tiber River, lies the Venerable English College. Founded as a seminary in 1579, it has formed generations of English priests for ministry in England.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, 44 former students of the English college were martyred in England during different waves of persecution. Forty of them have been beatified or canonized by the Church. The students at the English college knew that they were preparing for martyrdom. In fact, St Philip Neri, who lived near the college, used to greet the students with the phrase “Salvete Flores Martyrum – Hail, the flower of the martyrs.” And the college’s motto hangs above the door. It reads: “I have come to set the earth on fire,” and that was a desire the students made their own. They understood that God’s love passed through the Cross, and that our own love must do the same. Therefore, they were willing to witness to God’s love even to point of giving up their own lives. The martyrs of the English college exemplify setting the world on fire for love of God.
Today’s gospel reading is striking. Whenever we read the gospel it’s important to imagine the vocal undertone of Christ’s words. Like any other person, sometimes his voice would have been gentle and calm, and sometimes it would have been tense.
In today’s gospel Jesus proclaims: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing.” There’s a vibrant urgency to these words that must have been apparent in his voice. What does he mean? Why is he so passionate about this?
In the ancient Jewish world, fire was generally associated with judgment. We usually associate judgment with punishment. Yet Christ himself said in the gospel of John that he did not come to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. So what kind of judgment does Jesus bring?
He brings the judgment of the Cross. He brings the judgment that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son for us. He brings the judgment that brought St Paul to exclaim that “he loved me and he gave himself for me.”
When we really look at the crucifix we see the judgment of God. We see the horror of sin, and the infinitely greater love of God who came to die to set us free from sin and unite us to himself.
Christ reaffirms this in today’s gospel when he says that there is a baptism with which he must be baptized, and that he’s in anguish until it’s accomplished. The Greek verb we translate as baptize literally means to submerge. It refers to a difficult experience, and here Christ is referring to his suffering, death, and resurrection.
Christ came, then, to set the earth on fire by his death and resurrection. That brought us into a new relationship with him, setting us free to truly love him and, in him, to truly love others. And he invites us to share in that cruciform fire, to say with him: “I also have a mission to set the world on fire with freedom and love for God.”
The witness of others has a decisive impact. And our witness to others is a vital part of Christianity. In fact, the term “martyr” means “witness.” And we are all called to martyrdom. Most of us won’t die a violent death for our faith, but each one of us is called to set the world on fire for Christ through a little death to our own selfishness towards others. St Therese of Lisieux wrote about the hundreds of tiny pin-pricks we endure every day, which are a call to love.
There’s an everyday martyrdom to which we’re all called. It means smiling at someone when we feel lousy. It means a kind word when we feel like biting someone else’s head off. It means refusing to give in to bitterness or hatred towards someone who’s hurt us, and instead choosing to forgive that person. Those little acts of witness to Christ’s love – of martyrdom – help to set the world on fire with love.
St Therese of Avila said that the Devil likes to incite us to think about the great things we might someday do for God, and to forget about the good we can actually do right now. There’s one thing that we can all do that seems very small, but it makes all the difference in the world. We can invite someone else to the Sacraments.
As Catholics we believe that the Mass renews Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. Jesus loved each one of us, personally, and died for us. He has wanted to stay with us in the Eucharist until the end of time. We’re never alone; God is near us.
We also believe that Jesus wants to forgive our sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. No matter what we’ve done or failed to do, He wants to give us the tremendous joy of hearing the words: “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
If we really believe that, why not invite someone else to experience it too? Most of us know someone who has fallen away from the Church. Why not tell them about our experience of Reconciliation, and invite them to go too? Or why not invite them to come to Mass some Sunday?
The little things make the greatest difference. A tiny spark can set the world ablaze. Now we prepare to receive a small host transformed into the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. God takes the little things and makes them into something unfathomably great – he wants us to share in that same power of his eternal love.