Holy Fire - Joseph Wood

  Be honest, how many of you thought of something along the lines of "fiery judgement" or "hellfire" when you first read the title of this meditation? (I won't ask how many people didn't read the title at all.) I find it fascinating just how fraught our associations with fire have become in contemporary culture, especially contemporary religious culture, given that it's a symbol found almost universally in faiths around the world and throughout history--usually, with neutral or even positive connotations. It has offered light to guide our way; warmth to sustain life; movement and hunger that suggest something so familiar and so foreign at once; and innumerable other images to the human mind across our existence. It is hard to envision what our worship would look like without it, given its continued, indelible role in our shared liturgical lives. For instances, Jews light candles to delineate time, marking off the sacred moments of holidays from ordinary time and the return to the week at the end of Sabbath. In Christianity, we light altar candles, office candles, votive handles, and even the Paschal candle, all as ways to enter into historical memory and hint at the presence of God in our midst.

  So, what do we do--weighted down with such skewed cultural baggage--when we come to a holiday that's all about fire? How do we reclaim such a potent image when we hear the lesson from the Acts of the Apostles discuss the descent of "divided tongues, as of fire" appearing among the disciples and resting upon them (Acts 2:3), the Holy Spirit making its oh-so-familiar and oh-so-foreign presence known in the midst of the community of believers? I think we have to begin by unpacking quite what is going on in that upper room and the Jerusalem around it. The experience certainly sounds terrifying, what with the "rush of a violent wind" and previously mentioned tongues "of fire" (Acts 2:2-3), not to mention the xenolalia* that pours forth from the apostolic mouths in their wake. However frightening it may have been for those involved, notice that the fulcrum of the event is relationship. They may have been done in Divine style, but the miracles of Pentecost are all about God once more inundating the faithful and the community between them, entering into the minutia of human existence in a way that echoes and even compounds the scandal of the Incarnation. After all, the Spirit isn't confined to the mystery of Jesus' wholly human and wholly Godly nature: it's in each and everyone one of us. I am on fire with the Spirit. You are on fire with the Spirit. In naming this day as the birthday of the Church, we are implicitly stating that our shared identity is measured by that glorious, fiery potential among us.

  Yet the unpacking doesn't stop there, because Pentecost shares the same date as Shavuot. Shavuot is the festival of weeks, marking the 50th day after Passover and the commemoration of the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people at Sinai. (Remember, Sinai and Horeb--where Moses encounters the Burning Bush--are traditionally synonymous!) So, however overwhelming and new the descent of the Holy Spirit might have been, it also echoed the thunder and smoke, the burning without being consumed, that marked the Divine invitation for an impossibly intimate relationship between the Lord and the children of Israel. There is even a Midrashic account in early Jewish sources that claims that Isaiah 50:2 is about that moment and the people accidentally sleeping in on the day, causing God to lament: "Why have I come and no one is here to receive me?” Thus we should understand Pentecost as a repetition and refiguring of Shavuot, of Sinai, as part of the long Biblical saga of the Lord seeking out community with and between God's children. You could even argue that the Biblical message can be summed up in a slightly rephrased version of Genesis 2:18: It is not good for anyone, including God, to be alone.

  So, I'm not going to tell you whether or not to fear fire. Even at its best, fire is a powerful force, and it can easily overwhelm us. But I will argue that our faith is not about hypothetical fire to come, not about a judgement divorced from the here and now of the world we live in. The question isn't: will I entire fire eventually? Rather, it's: how will I enter fire this time? How will I experience and share in the often overwhelming presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst? Whatever answers you find, may your Pentecost be glorious and bright. May it be the start of something new, and may it transform your relational life--even if just a little bit. Towards all of those ends, I leave you with Mary Oliver's poem "Sunrise" once more:

You can
die for it-
an idea, 
or the world. People
have done so, 
brilliantly, 
letting
their small bodies be bound
to the stake, 
creating
an unforgettable
fury of light. But
this morning, 
climbing the familiar hills
in the familiar
fabric of dawn, I thought
of China, 
and India
and Europe, and I thought
how the sun
blazes
for everyone just
so joyfully
as it rises
under the lashes
of my own eyes, and I thought
I am so many! 
What is my name? 
What is the name
of the deep breath I would take
over and over
for all of us? Call it
whatever you want, it is
happiness, it is another one
of the ways to enter
fire.

 

*Xenolalia is one of a few different technical words used to describe the miracle of speaking in tongues. It is usually distinguished from glossolalia, the other most common term, in that it is the ability to speak a natural language unknown to the speaker. (In short: they're speaking a language that already exists on earth, even as it's unknown to the person speaking it.) Glossolalia, on the other hand, can describe the speaking of a completely unknown language or simulacrum of language. The latter is the one most often found in Pentecostal and Charismatic practices.