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‘I Came to Cast Fire on the World …’

By Father John G. McDonald

‘I Came to Cast Fire on the World …’

The Sacrament of Holy Eucharist

A Seven-Part Series on the Sacraments of the Catholic Church

One of the most beautiful rituals that the Church offers is the Rite for the Consecration of a Church. At a certain point in the ceremony, the bishop kindles a fire on the surface of the new altar and then prays the words: “Let our prayer rise, O Lord, like incense in Your sight; and as this house is filled with a pleasing fragrance, so let Your Church be fragrant with the aroma of Christ.”

The altar is the most important piece of furniture in the church. It is the place where the Lord Jesus comes to give Himself to His people. In the Book of Exodus, we read that Moses encounters God in a bush that burns, but it is not consumed. He is commanded to take off his shoes to honor the holy place. (Ex 3:5) At the altar, we celebrate the mystery of Christ’s Body and Blood that were sacrificed, not destroyed, on the Cross. The prophet Isaiah speaks of the burning ember that comes from the altar of the Temple: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin is forgiven.” (Is 6:7) That smoldering ember is the sacred Host that is blessed, broken, and given to those who say “Amen” to Christ and His Church. The altar is the place that the Lord Jesus has chosen to rekindle the light of a “smoldering wick.” (Mt 12:20)

When our light starts to fail, our Lord kindles us back into flame because of the love He shows us in the celebration of the Eucharistic Mystery.

Worthy reception and participation in the Mystery of the Eucharist hinges on understanding more deeply this place of encounter that the Lord has chosen. St. Luke gives us our Lord’s desire when He tells us, “I came to cast fire on the world, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Lk 12:49) That fire is kindled on the altar by the words of the priest and the action of the Holy Spirit, and it is given to each one of us to carry out into the world to bring light, warmth, and life to others. The altar is that place which brings us communion and solidarity and acts as the anchor and touchstone for our Christian lives.

In the same way that Catholics refuse to ignore the essential role of the Blessed Virgin Mary in bringing us the Lord Jesus, we, too, must look to the altar as an essential place in our lives, a place that should never be ignored or abandoned. Shoulder to shoulder before the altar, we, as a people, experience what it means to be “one body, one spirit in Christ” as we hear in the third Eucharistic Prayer. Each one of us has a parish altar that is our place of encounter with God. Make your parish altar a place of encounter that is never abandoned, never without the people that take from it the gift of light and life, the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Father John G. McDonald is currently pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in Anniston. He was principal and then president of John Carroll Catholic High School from 2008 to 2016, and he served as the Carl J. Peter Chair of Homiletics at the Pontifical North American College in Rome from 2016 to 2019.