WHEN THE DAY OF PENTECOST had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them. And a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit…” (Acts 2:1-4a; all biblical quotes in this article come from the New Revised Standard Version).
Using the image of fire, the Acts of the Apostles describes the descent of the Holy Spirit 50 days (Pentecost) after Jesus rose from the dead. The Spirit came to console, fortify and empower them for what lay ahead—the work of telling everyone the wondrous story of Jesus.
But why would the Spirit come as fire? Fire is probably the most powerful of the four traditional elements (the others being water, air and earth). It’s also the most mysterious. The symbol for the Third Person of the Godhead naturally evokes reverence and awe.
The Easter Vigil begins with the lighting of a fire. The result is light, heat and warmth. Then the big paschal candle is lit, followed by all the little individual candles. Fire is contagious. If unchecked, it is all-consuming. It spreads outward and upward. Soon the whole church building exudes light, heat and warmth.
Like the other elements, fire has positive and negative aspects. And because it is connected to the release of energy, fire is of urgent concern today.
Gift From the Heavens
Exactly what is fire? The first meaning given in Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary is “the phenomenon of combustion manifested in light, flame and heat.” Technically, “fire is the rapid oxidation of a material in the chemical process of combustion,” according to Wikipedia. Fire is the only element that is a process rather than a thing.
Fire was present on the earth from its beginning. Once the planet had oxygen, the magma being released from its molten core was accompanied by fire, just as in volcanic eruptions today. Episcopal priest Alla Renée Bozarth, who grew up in the Pacific Northwest, writes in her poem “Where Life Begins”:
“not in tidal pools but in the
thermal vents between
Earth’s shifting plates in the Ring
(quoted in Christine Valters Painter’s Water, Wind, Earth, and Fire: The Christian Practice of Praying With the Elements)
When humans came on the scene, the ability to control fire became pivotal for them. Nearly all ancient peoples’ origin stories include stealing fire from the gods. Lightning probably provided their original fires. As any Scout can attest, creating and maintaining a fire is not easy.
Fire meant ancient people could see at night. They could scare away many nocturnal attacking animals. Humans had warmth and could move into different temperature zones, expanding their hunting and gathering range. They could cook their food and increase the variety of their nutrients. Evidence of cooking dates to as early as 1.9 million years ago, although fire was probably not used in a controlled manner until 400,000 years ago. Fire led to the development of “slash and burn” agriculture.
Forest fires can be very destructive. Smokey the Bear was right to warn us about careless use of matches and fires in the woods. But newer thinking has decided that fire plays a vital role in natural ecosystems. Forest fires now are fought only where they directly impact human life, homes and businesses.
After 15 years, that fire-management system of “controlled burns” was questioned in 1988 when fires in Yellowstone National Park scorched 1.2 million acres. But since then, most of the wildlife populations showed no major effect or quickly rebounded, and the flora has regenerated. We were reassured that fire has value.
Firefighters do heroic and dangerous work. I personally can attest to this, as the apartment building in which my family was living in April 1959 caught fire from spontaneous combustion. An off-duty fireman who lived in our building alerted everyone. Families from all 15 apartments escaped unscathed, despite terrible smoke damage. My father handed my mother, my sister and me out of the window down to that fireman; Dad and our next-door neighbor, Mrs. Anderson, who had sought shelter with us, waited for the fire department’s ladders.
Jesus’ Picnic Breakfast
Most all of these early uses of fire are reflected in the Bible. It was first and often connected with offering sacrifices to God. Fire was present in the story of Abraham’s test to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22:1-18); in the end it was a ram caught by its horns in the thicket that was sacrificed.
Fire also directly represents God’s presence. When the Israelites set out from Egypt into the wilderness, “The LORD went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and a pillar of fire by night, to give them light” (Exodus 13:21). Neither pillar ever left them until they reached the Promised Land.
Sometimes fire is put in censers to create smoke and incense as a symbol of prayers rising to God.
In the story of Elijah’s ascension into heaven as Elisha stands by, fire is synonymous with power: “As they [Elijah and Elisha] continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven” (2 Kings 2:11).
In John 21:9, a charcoal fire is involved when the Risen Jesus prepares a picnic breakfast for some of his disciples along the beach of the Sea of Tiberias, nowadays called the Sea of Galilee. It is after feeding them cooked bread and fish that Jesus tells Peter to tend his lambs and sheep.
Fire can also be used for healing, purification and cleansing. To try to cure St. Francis’ eyes, a doctor touched a hot poker to his face. He was terrified of this medical procedure, yet in his Canticle of the Creatures he sings the praises of Brother Fire:
“All praise be Yours, my God,
through Brother Fire,
through whom You brighten up
How beautiful he is, how gay!
Full of power and strength.”
How many cancer patients today would think to compliment the power and strength of the radiation or chemotherapy that essentially burns away the pernicious cells?
Native Americans preserve their rituals of burning cedar or sage. Sometimes this is hospitality and inclusion; sometimes it’s cleansing and purification.
Fire is essential in the refining of metals, so important to Iron Age people. Many biblical writers speak of the “refiner’s fire” (for example, Malachi 3:2). This idea is probably what led to the idea that the afterlife would involve fire, where impurities can be eliminated. And this life “refines” us as well by adversity. The Prophet Isaiah says, “See, I have refined you, but not like silver; I have tested you in the furnace of adversity” (48:10). Proverbs says, “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, but the Lord tests the heart” (17:3).
Jesus speaks of furnace fires, as well as the chaff (castoff from the harvest) being burned. In Mark 9:43, he says it is better to cut off your hand if it causes you to stumble and enter the afterlife maimed, “than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.”
Does this mean that hell is necessarily a place of “unquenchable fire”? Jesus could just have been borrowing a popular image of the day to make a point.
In fact, the poet Dante Alighieri made many of his circles of purgatory and hell cold.
Actually, all we know about hell for sure is that it is the absence of God. Only mortal sin, defined as “a willful turning away from God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1037) and persistence in it, consigns one to hell. The Catechism emphasizes, “The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation
from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs” (#1035).
If hell is a literal place, then it lacks light, love, laughter, compassion and so much more. As terrible as the pains left by fire, as burn victims would attest, fire would be the least of the torments of hell. For this reason, God “does not want ‘any to perish, but all to come to repentance’ (2 Peter 3:9)” (CCC, #1037).
Energy is Fire
Our whole civilization is based on energy, a controlled use of fire. The gasoline in our cars burns, releasing energy, although in combustion engines various steps are taken to eliminate the flame. Oil also is burned to heat the air or water that warms our homes and businesses. Many of us heat by natural gas, which is a byproduct of oil; when that is burned, it too releases energy.
Power plants that are not nuclear or hydroelectric (water-based) burn coal, which is the pressed residue of organic matter, to produce electricity. Coal used to be burned directly in individual homes until the dangers of its smoke began to make people sick, as in Dickens’s London.
All of these fossil fuels are limited and will most likely run out within the next 100 years. The newest energy source, nuclear power, could be unlimited but is extremely dangerous. The terrifying nuclear meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, in the wake of last March’s earthquakes and tsunami, attests to that. The radioactivity that has been thrown into the air has the potential to affect the whole world.
Have we learned nothing from Three Mile Island and Chernobyl? Wouldn’t it be ironic if the human race perished from a nuclear accident as opposed to an atomic bomb delivered by an enemy or rogue state, which we’ve feared since the Cold War?
So what’s to be done? Two ideas come to mind immediately: Reduce our consumption of current fossil fuels, and fund urgent research into alternative sources of energy.
The Fire of Creativity
In the end, it may be another kind of fire that will rescue us: the fire of creativity, which is the Holy Spirit at work in us. We refer to “sparks” of creativity and of “burning out,” a clear awareness that creativity is not totally within our control but is something to be appreciated and nurtured when it
The Holy Spirit’s inspiration involves not only increasing our head knowledge but also inflaming our hearts. “O Holy Ghost,” one prayer goes, “may my heart be ever inflamed with love of God and of my neighbor.” Fire is ardor, passion and heart-and-soul commitment. It is romantic love and also love for all of humankind.
Art and compassion flow from the heart. Images of the Sacred Hearts of both Jesus and Mary often have flames coming from them.
Depictions of St. Anthony show a flame over his head. Fire captures intensity and zeal.
Poet Father Edward Hays in Prayers for a Planetary Pilgrim welcomes spring in these words:
“As my ancestors of old
lit feasting fires to banish the
and to call forth the fire of the
may I enkindle in my heart
the flames of hope in new life.”
Fire was God’s ultimate gift to us. And more than any other element, how we manage it will determine our future.We pray:
“Come, Holy Spirit,
fill the hearts of your faithful
and kindle in them the fire of
Send forth your Spirit, and they
shall be created,
And You shall renew the face of
It is the Spirit’s fire that will renew the earth through us.