Aleteia

Why the Holy Spirit appeared as fire

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We can learn from this manifestation how to allow the Spirit to act in our lives.

Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire,
which parted and came to rest on each one of them.
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit…
Acts 2:3-4

There are, in our Sacred Scriptures, four visible manifestations of the Holy Spirit. He appears at the baptism of Christ as a dove (Luke 3:22), at the Transfiguration of Jesus as the cloud (Luke 17:5), as wind in the Upper Room (Acts 2:2), and lastly as tongues of fire (Acts 2:3).

While one can say many things about these manifestations, the Holy Spirit considered as fire has a particular place in our tradition. Fire warms, enlightens, and cleanses. These properties of fire speak to us of the work proper to the Holy Spirit.

He especially warms, enlightens, and cleanses.

Recall what it’s like to warm cold limbs by a fire. The warmth of flame brings life back and restores flexibility and mobility. The warmth of the Holy Spirit similarly restores our mobility. The graces the Holy Spirit offers gives new horizon to life and allows ourselves to be conformed to Christ.

St. Paul says, in his Letter to the Romans,

But you are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you. Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is alive because of righteousness. If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Rom. 8:9-11).

The Holy Spirit gives life like a fire restores vim and vigor to one coming out of the cold.

But fire not only warms, it enlightens.

The power of a beacon, a great blaze piercing the night directs and inspires. Ancient peoples used fires as signals, calling a nation to arms or sharing news of a victory. The Holy Spirit similarly drives us to action and allows us to delight in the work of the Lord.

In the Old Testament a pillar of fire led the Israelites forth from Egypt. The Book of Exodus wrote,

The Lord preceded them, in the daytime by means of a column of cloud to show them the way, and at night by means of a column of fire to give them light. Thus they could travel both day and night. Neither the column of cloud by day nor the column of fire by night ever left its place in front of the people (Ex. 13:21-22).

The fiery column assured the people of the presence of the Lord and enlightened them by directing and leading them.

Finally, fire cleanses.

We were made in the image and likeness of God. We will never be happy until that day when we can delight in the perfect vision of God. Until that day comes, we will be continually cleansed and purified, making our hearts more and more ready to bear the good gifts of God. 

Think of how a forest fire cleanses and renews the landscape of the wilderness. Clearing away all the debris accumulated over the years, a fire restores order and readies the landscape for new growth.

So too the Holy Spirit cleanses our hearts of the debris that we have built up over the years. Removing all those obstacles which impede our relationship with God, the Holy Spirit purifies us, readying our hearts to accept every good gift he sends. Only then can we be ready to grow and progress in the spiritual life.

This Pentecost may the Holy Spirit who appears as fire comfort, enlighten, and cleanse our hearts. May we be strengthened and filled with His every good gift, that our hearts may be more perfectly conformed to the love of divine things.

Heal our wounds, our strength renew;
on our dryness pour thy dew;
wash the stains of guilt away;

bend the stubborn heart and will;
melt the frozen, warm the chill;
guide the steps that go astray.

On the faithful, who adore
and confess thee, evermore
in thy sevenfold gift descend;

give them virtue’s sure reward,
give them thy salvation, Lord;
give them joys that never end.

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