The Church’s Catechism tells us that “Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. It strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life. The virtue of fortitude enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions. It disposes one even to renounce and sacrifice his life in defense of a just cause.” (CCC, 1808) Jesus puts it even more succinctly in today’s Gospel: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” He wants us to be a people on fire, a people who will not waver in our pursuit of living the Gospel, a people who will not back down in the face of obstacles or even oppression, a people who live their faith joyfully and with firm conviction that our God is trustworthy and faithful. The Christian believer is called to exercise the virtue of fortitude because nothing else is worthy of our God.
Nobody says fortitude is easy. Jesus himself was very realistic about this, and warns us today that fortitude in living the Christian life can be a very divisive way of life. The disciple can and will run into all sorts of oppression, and can even lead to broken relationships with those who are dearest to us. If that Gospel calls upon us to take an unpopular position, and speak up on behalf of the poor, the alien, the prisoner, or a pro-life position, we may even find that some of our friends or family cannot go there with us. Being a Christian can make us feel like foreigners in our own land. It’s as if we are carrying a passport from another place. And we are, for those who are first of all citizens of God’s reign, Jesus’ vision and values come first in our lives. All because Jesus has come to set a blazing fire on the earth and that fire burns already in us.
Today’s reading from the letter to the Hebrews makes it clear that we aren’t running the race of fortitude alone. We have at our disposal the support and encouragement of a “great cloud of witnesses” which the Church calls the Communion of Saints. Some of these people may have already died, but their lives remain as testimony to the virtue of fortitude. Perhaps these people were friends or relatives who have gone before us, marked with the sign of faith, loved ones who were examples of unselfish commitment. Or maybe they are relative strangers to us, people whose courage in the face of death has caused us to stand in awe. They may be people among us who are still alive, people in the neighborhood or in the workplace or at school whose friendliness brightened our day. This great cloud of witnesses cheers us on, and are God’s way of helping us to live lives marked by fortitude.
Very often on the journey of discipleship, we may find that the oppression and division that the Gospel causes casts us down. Like poor Jeremiah in today’s first reading, maybe we find that we have been thrown into a cistern of despair or hopelessness. Fortitude is the virtue that helps us in the midst of all that, to wait with faithfulness on Ebed-melech the Cushite to come to our rescue and draw us up out of the pit.
The truth is, today’s Liturgy of the Word can come across as very negative. Who wants to hear about being cast into a cistern? Are we eager to find that we are going to be in angry division with those we love most? The temptation to let all of this go in one ear and out the other, remaining instead in the comfort of our luke-warmness is almost overwhelming. But that’s just not good enough. We can’t live that way and still call ourselves disciples. It is not enough to love God in our heads. We are told in the book of Revelation how God wishes to spew the luke-warm among us out of his mouth. We need to be on fire, actively living the graces of baptism that we have received – to live with fortitude, integrity, conviction, fervor, and burning zeal. We have to be willing to live in the shadow of the cross, where we resolve all our divisions and receive the baptism that promotes Gospel peace.