“I came to bring fire to the earth,” Jesus declares.
It is almost as though the cross itself were a lightning rod for trouble, division, and sin.
“I came not to bring peace but a sword,” he says, and we wonder, what happened to “blessed are the peacemakers.” What happened to “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”
The cross as a lightning rod, drawing the fire to the earth, laying it to rest in the ground.
Hate, cursing, abuse: they do not happen in a world at peace, where there are no enemies, no abusers. In the meantime, peacemaking is hard work, and not for the faint of heart. It does not pretend that there isn’t trouble; there is no peace without justice, after all.
The cross is not a magic wand, or a totem against trouble. It is a lightning rod.
A couple of weeks ago, Giles Fraser wrote about the sacrifice at the altar of Fr Jacques Hamel, an elderly priest in St-Etienne-du-Rouvray, in northern France. Teenaged extremists, bent on trouble, division, and sin killed him during the prayers of the Mass, sacrificial act.
I have no time for the idea that Jesus is sacrificed on the cross to appease an angry God. If that’s true, then God becomes the enemy of humankind and I am against him. No, Jesus absorbs the violence that comes from us not from God. He receives our blows, our punishments, our disdain. And, despite his innocence – or, rather, precisely because of it – he refuses to answer back in kind. No more an eye for an eye.
In other words, the sacrifice of the cross is the non-violent absorption of human violence. The offer of love in return for hate, even to the point of death. This is the horrendous price that peace is sometimes asked to pay. This is what makes the eucharistic sacrifice life-giving and not some historical death cult.
And this is how Fr Jacques died, says Fraser: rehearsing the sacrifice of the cross at the altar. The lightning rod for sin and division and despair is rendered life-giving by the transformation of Christ of death to life, of hatred to love, of abuse to forgiveness.
Peace-making is less about winning, still less about fighting, than it is about justice, mercy, and love.
And what shall we say of the two Muslim clerics murdered in New York as they walked home from Friday prayers? Did they not also, in their way, absorb the fire aimed at our hearts, run it into the ground?
I read the obituary of another priest this past week. This one, Edward Daly, lived in Northern Ireland, and was raised up as a bishop during the Troubles because of his leadership, and his propensity for peace-making. He first came to public noticeafter the so-called Bloody Sunday massacre, when he was filmed leading a group of men, waving a bloodied white handkerchief to hold the fire of the soldiers, as they carried a dying young man out of danger. He had given the boy last rites, he later told the cameras, before leading the way past the rifles and bullets, being their lightning rod, to run further violence to ground before it could reach them.
The cross is not a magic wand to bring peace at a stroke. It is not a talisman to ward off sin.
The prophets against whom Jeremiah warns dream their dreams and ignore reality. They would have God favour them, for no other reason than they favour themselves. They would have God save them, for no other reason than their own self-interest.
But the chosen people of God are not chosen for themselves alone, but to be harbingers of God’s word for all people; to be bearers of God’s standards, of justice and peace, for all people; to be lightning rods for sin and despair, running it into the ground, for the protection of God’s good earth and all who live in it.
That is the way of the cross.
The drama that is played out in the midst of that storm is sometimes obscured by the wind and the thunder and the rain, noise and damage. But in the centre, standing still, is the cross. It is the old priest before his altar, turning wine into blood, giving life to his communicants. It is the young priest before his people, showing forth the sign of sacrifice, red on white, boots on the ground, carrying the fallen, anointed with oil. It is the cleric drawing fire simply by the way he is dressed for prayer. It is the one who turns aside anger, running it into the ground, offering another cheek, another chance, another way.
It is the priesthood of all believers, that great cloud of witnesses, walking in the way of the cross, blessed lightning rods.
But notice, it is not the purpose of the lightning rod to be destroyed by the storm. Far from it; the lightning rod has the capacity, by its design, its materials, its placement, to draw that dramatic and dangerous fire into the earth, rendering it, in ideal circumstances, almost harmless. For your creator has made you well, and with a purpose.
The purpose of the cross is not to harbour death, sin, violent division. It is designed rather to run it to ground. In the act of crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, the drama of Christ converts violence into silence, death into life, sacrifice into mystery.
“I came to bring fire to the earth,” says Jesus, “and how I wish that it were already kindled.” But do not be afraid of the storm.