The stereotypical image we have of old-style religious zealots is of someone dressed in sackcloth and ashes, warning people to “Repent!” In their own times if they weren’t called zealots they were called insane, or maybe even dangerous. Nevertheless, their message usually caught on with a handful of followers and in some cases their message caught fire and spread around the world. Today, with the luxury of hindsight we can see some of those zealots for who they were—saints and prophets—and in one particular case, God.
In today’s gospel Jesus describes himself as on fire. And like any great leader, he set a fire in the hearts of his followers. That was quite an accomplishment with a message like the one in today’s gospel:
“I have come to set the earth on fire…Do you think I have come to establish peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided three against two.”
Jesus preached repentance but in the true sense of the word: Rethinking! That’s an ugly process where humans are constantly torturing themselves and each other to find the truth. Our Church is built on the bones of martyrs who gave their lives to find and teach the truth. There were always ignorant and evil tyrants hungry to hurry the process of martyrdom while trying to kill the message at the same time. But the martyrs of our church were inseparable from their teachings and that’s why they live on to this day as saints. Indeed, they are the very soul of the Catholic Church.
St. Paul is our Church’s poster child of repentance. He went from persecuting the followers of Jesus Christ—someone Paul believed to be the antithesis of a Messiah—to taking the lead in spreading Christ’s word. He eventually realized that Jesus’ cross was not a means to Christ’s end, but a powerful and necessary tool for salvation.
“Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart,” Paul tells the Hebrews of his day. “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.”
Since Paul wrote that, many saints have done that very thing in the name of repentance—their own and ours. It’s still an active process, as we see in the news every day. But thanks to the fire Jesus started with his cross, those who commit themselves to helping him carry it are both consumed and preserved by it at the same time.