When the coach of a high school football team goes into the locker room at half-time, especially when the team is losing, he gives a fire and brimstone pep talk to rally them and raise their spirits. He provides them the empowerment they need, filling them with enthusiasm.
Our scriptures today copy this strategy, to a degree, at least. We hear Jesus in one of His more invigorating moods, saying to His followers: LET’S GO! We’ve got a job to do, and now is not the time to lay back and take it easy! Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work! "I have come to set the earth on fire…"
We’ve grown accustomed to a mild and meek Jesus, and find these words striking and even off-setting. We’re not expecting to hear this type of language from Him! It can cause a kind of turmoil, and indeed the gospel proceeds to describe it, in terms of a family whose members are divided among themselves when a project is proposed that is a high-energy one, and that makes a demand on every one of them.
Something of significance is at stake here: Jesus’ mission to establish His Father’s kingdom here on earth. He knows that only limited time is at His disposal, so that, upon His departure from the scene, this task will fall upon us. St. Paul, fortunately, comes to our help with some promising insight on what the prospects ahead for us look like. He talks about the empowerment we are to receive…"power through the Spirit"…"…the power at work within us…" In other words, we can do it. We can carry on the work Jesus has begun.
But…it takes faith to make this our conviction. It’s a bit like hearing from someone, who is commissioning us for a baffling search and find operation, "You’ll know it when you see it". When that’s the best depiction of what we’re searching for, we’re a little discomfited. But, as a matter of fact, it works. We will know it when we see it, and will be exhilarated when we make this discovery. A similar upbeat exhortation is that "it’s in the doing that we’ll know we’re up to it"! Again, St. Paul helpfully backs this up, when he observes about God, in our regard, that He "…is able to accomplish far more than all we ask or imagine…"
Today we hear words of vigor and high energy from our scriptures. While on many occasions they comfort and console us, today they may sound intimidating. But let us go forth on mission to that part of God’s acre which we inhabit, and prepare it for the coming kingdom of God. Convinced we are empowered by Him, we need this invigorating commission from His lips to rally us.
Fr. Sebastian MacDonald, C.P. is a member of the Passionist formation community at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago.