I preached this at a Mass of Thanksgiving at the Church of the Most Holy Trinity (my home parish) in Augusta, GA.
The liturgy of Pentecost is thick with images of fire. Most notable, of course, is the reading from Acts, where coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles is described as the descent of “tongues as of fire.” We also asked the Father to send his Holy Spirit as a “flame of wisdom” in the opening prayer; we begged the Holy Spirit to “kindle in [us] the fire of … love” at the Gospel Acclamation; and, at the solemn blessing at the end of Mass, we’ll ask that the flame that emboldened the apostles “burn out all evil from our hearts and make them glow with pure light.” Hence, I thought it might be fitting for us on this feast of Pentecost to meditate on what the fact that God reveals himself to us as a “consuming fire” means 1) for our understanding of the Church and 2) for our understanding of discipleship.
1) Let’s start with the Church: I don’t know if y’all have ever tried starting a fire using only a magnifying glass. I used to amuse myself for hours doing this when I was young. Not even the summer sun, of course, would make grass spontaneously combust. However, if I focused that same sunlight with a lens onto a little pinpoint, the grass would begin to char and blacken around the area of concentration, wisps of smoke would rise, and a little flame would finally shoot up. Once this threshold was crossed, the fire would go to work more or less automatically, spreading from that superheated center across the heap of grass until it was entirely engulfed in flames. A certain paradox presented itself: in order to set the whole stack on fire in the end, one had to focus on just a point at the beginning.
It strikes me that God has been doing something similar since the beginning of time. God first shed His light on the world in a very general way at the moment of creation, revealing His plan the through the beauty and order of nature. But, in addition to this more diffuse light, he has also applied a more focused beam. He intensified his presence by making a covenant with Israel; He eventually further focused it on the Southern tribes, and even further on the remnant of the Southern tribes who returned from exile. Finally, when the fullness of time came, God focused his presence in a single man. The full splendor of divinity was, for a span of 33 years, concentrated in a pinpoint of divine light, in the person of Jesus Christ. And from that brilliant center shot out the flame of the Holy Spirit, who to this very day burns in the Church and–by means of the Church–burns in our world.
And this is what we celebrate on the Solemnity of Pentecost–the day that the world caught fire. It is characteristic of fire that, once started, it sustains itself. Christ promises that the flame of His Spirit will burn undiminished in the Church until the end of the time, that is, until there is no more fuel left to burn.
And this is why there is cause for joy today; the same flame that caused the hearts of Jesus’ disciples to burn within them, burns as hot today as it did when Christ walked the earth. Through the Church’s doctrines, her sacraments and her scriptures, Christ is not merely yesterday; no, He is today, tomorrow and forever. Despite all appearances, there is never an age when the Spirit’s flame does not burn within the Church, never an age when Christians cannot catch fire by drawing close to her.
2) This brings us to the second cause of joy: what it means for the life of discipleship that our God is fire. A couple points:
First, fire lives only by increasing. If it is to exist at all, it must continually draw new material, new kindling, into itself. This means, of course, that complacency has no place in the spiritual life. To be holy is to press forward, to rise every morning resolved to give oneself more completely than the day before. No longer to strive to be better, is no longer to be good.
Second, fire transforms: it melts; it tempers; it purifies; it sets aglow. God would not have introduced Himself to us as a burning fire unless He had the power to change us. It’s easy to become discouraged. Easy to give up on confession and prayer because we feel that we’re in a rut. Easy to make a false peace with our sins. Easy to mistake “giving up” for “self-acceptance.” But the images of Pentecost are forceful and insistent. They plead: God can change our hearts. He can refine our love. He only waits for us to give Him permission.
Since this a Mass of Thanksgiving a week after my priestly ordination, I suppose it’s not out of place to say that this mystery of Pentecost is, in a certain sense, what every new priest stakes his life on. That God can take a sinful man and make him into a bearer of His flame—not through any power or worthiness of his own, but through the power of the Spirit.
He also stakes his life on the fact that God does not ordinarily communicate this flame directly. For His own reasons, God prefers to use weak human instruments. The flame passes from one generation, one Christian, to another. And, if a priest can have enough confidence in this process to stake his life on it, it’s probably because he knows that he himself first received this flame through others. And there are so many here from whom I’ve received…
- My parents: whose witness of a holy life encouraged my vocation.
- The Alleluia Community, which exposed me to the radicalism of the Gospel.
- Holy Trinity Parish: where I received the sacraments and learned to love the liturgy.