Cold as Hell – Arnel Aquino, SJ

Matthew 16:21-27, 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

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You duped me, Lord, and I let myself be duped. Niloko n’yo ako, Panginoon; ako naman nagpaloko.” Imagine talking to God that way? Must’ve been one of prophet Jeremiah’s bad, bad days. Jeremiah means “Yahweh exalts.” But biblical tradition calls him “the weeping prophet”. God called him because Israel had deviated very far from God. The priests were greedy, the people were worshipping idols. They were even burning children as offerings to gods! “You duped me, Lord,” must therefore mean, “You didn’t tell me this was mission impossible! Look how people mock me and insult me and not listen to me!” Then he says, “I say to myself, I will not mention you anymore, I will speak your name no more,” to hell with this mission, in other words! No sooner does he say this than he realizes, “But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart…I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.” The fire for God’s mission that God himself keeps alive in Jeremiah’s struggling heart, that fire burned right through him.

Speaking of fire, the word “Satan” not only means “enemy” or “adversary”, it also means “astray” or “distant”. Now I find this interesting because that’s exactly what Peter asked Jesus to do. “Distance yourself from Jerusalem, Lord,” he seemed to say. “Take your mission anywhere but there.” After all, Jesus himself said he’d suffer greatly and be killed over there. But just when you think Jesus would appreciate Peter’s concern, he slaps him with the name Satan. “Do not dupe me, Satan” the Lord seemed to say. “I will not stray from my people. I will not be distanced from my mission even if I have to suffer and die for it. You’re standing in my way. Step aside.” Peter must’ve felt burned. But maybe Peter needed a burning. Maybe he had turned conveniently cold.

Don’t we often think of Satan as constantly triggering our egos, igniting quarrels, fanning flames of lust, stoking anger? I guess this is why St. Augustine cemented our image of hell as a “lake of fire” where he said the damned will experience the unbearable pain of literally being burned forever. But did you ever hear of the theory that hell might not be a hot place after all. Just the opposite, it might just be an eternity that’s freezing cold, dark, and claustrophobic. This image of hell would square off well with today’s Gospel. Jesus calls his best friend Satan because Peter tells him to pull his personal boundaries inwards so he can move in safer, risk-free, convenient circles. In other words, Peter prefers that Jesus stymy the fire in his heart and just acquiesce to the conveniently cold.

Being on fire is not all “devil”. In fact, many times, being conveniently cold might even be the enemy of God. All this time that we have been duped into associating Satan with hellfire, who knows, maybe cold is what evil really wants us to become. When a priest, for example, no longer cares to spend time serving the poor because of the worry-free company of the wealthy…or when husband and wife no longer care to sew the pieces of their threadbare marriage…or when parents turn blasé and nonchalant over their uncontrollable, egocentric children…or when we always need to be in control of things to the disregard of people’s freedoms and feelings…or when a whole nation can no longer be bothered to shudder from cold-blooded massacre, can no longer be stirred to protest for the poor, can no longer be inconvenienced towards a groundswell of righteous anger…then Satan could really play us to the cold as deftly as he could play us to the fire. And when the fire in our hearts burn low, next to nothing, it’s only right that Jesus invoke Satan’s name on us, the dark master of cold, to thaw us.

I found a nice quote from GK Chesterton the other day and I thought it perfectly describes the fire in Jesus’ heart. “Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live, taking the form of readiness to die.” This “strong desire to live by a readiness to die,” this readiness to suffer for people we love, this passion to live dangerously so others may safely live, this courage…this is a fire that God put in all human hearts. When we turn cold and away from the suffering, the voiceless, the dying, then maybe, we’ve turned into cowards. But courage is what is Godly. That’s what Jesus showed when he wouldn’t be restrained from paying the price of loving the people. Courage is what is Godly, not cowardice; fire, in other words, not cold; moving forward, not slinking back; approaching even while trembling in anxiety, not sitting regal and pretty but useless. Our Jesus, dear sisters and brothers, was a brave, brave man. He wants us no less brave. He knows & shows that it is not cold that transforms, purifies, and strengthens us, but fire.

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