[I gave this homily on the feast of Pentecost in 2005.]
Now why fire for the Holy Spirit? Well for one thing, fire is a source of light and of heat. Fire purifies precious metals, and in general, it is a symbol of dynamic passionate energy and love, and here we speak of fire from God. As we heard in our Office this morning, the text combines the images of fire and water and says that the fountain of the Holy Spirit pours down, gushes down, onto the apostles in flaming streams. It’s a way of trying to express the lavishness, the power, the energy, the bright Uncreated Light and Glory of God the Holy Spirit, who is being given to us this very day as we celebrate this holy mystery. The material fire and the spiritual fire both have different elements to them, positive and negative, because fire can be a destructive thing. But we’ll get into that in a bit.
In the novel by Michael O’Brien called A Cry of Stone, the little heroine, who is a Native American woman, speaks about different kinds of spiritual fire. Their language is very full of concrete images and not of abstract concepts, so it’s easier to connect to sometimes. She talks first of all about what she calls the sweet-fire. The sweet-fire is the grace, the love of God, something she experiences when she goes before Jesus in the tabernacle in the church. She says she feels this sweet-fire coming into her. It doesn’t hurt, but it burns in a beautiful and loving way. It’s a torrent of love that comes to her from Jesus, and she in her own heart returns it to Him, in her own simple way of loving Him back in gratitude.
The sweet-fire is also something that she sees in other people when she sees goodness in them, and love. In the eyes of a young man who she came to love like a brother, when he loved her she said she saw the sweet-fire in his eyes. The Holy Spirit brings us the sweet-fire today if we’re open to it, if we want it and if we want to return our love for God’s love.
But there’s another kind of fire, which she called a bile-fire. Now this fire comes either from the demons or from someone who’s in the grip of evil. It’s a dark stream of anger or hatred or bitterness that comes out of people, something that is evil and destructive. There’s no light in this bile-fire. It’s like hellfire. You know, some people have said about Hell, that it’s a fire that burns but does not give light. You’re in the flames but you’re also in darkness at the same time, and that’s the fire of the devil. As a matter of fact, in another of Michael O’Brien’s novels, the character of the antichrist invokes the devil as “he who hath the form of black flame.” This is the bile-fire, the dark evil flame that is exactly the opposite of the sweet-fire of the Holy Spirit that we’ve come to receive today.
Not so long ago I had an experience, which was rather unpleasant, but it—I almost said “illuminates” this mystery, though I shouldn’t, because this is all about darkness, the reality of that dark presence of evil. You know, sometimes we have to engage in spiritual warfare. I hate it when I have to do that in the middle of the night, but that happens once in a while. One night, I just felt—I won’t go into details here—several clear indications that there was some malevolent presence in my little room that night, which does not, by the way, make for sweet dreams. But anyway, in the final manifestation of that—I was trying to force my hand into the priestly blessing-form (the name of Jesus and the sign of the Cross) to make it go away, but at such moments it’s hard even to do that—I saw something that was really weird. The room was completely dark. It was the middle of the night and it was pitch black. But you know what, something darker than the darkness passed in front of my eyes. I thought, how could something be darker than black? But that’s what evil is: the formless void of darkness that’s darker than the darkest night.
I remember somebody else who was here a couple years ago; she was struggling with the devil, and said she’d seen visions. You know how she saw the devil? It wasn’t a form with horns and hooves and a pointy tail or that kind of thing. She said the devil is a black hole of evil and it sucks into it anything that comes near it. That’s one of the best descriptions of evil and the devil that I’ve ever heard. That’s the darkness. But what did Jesus say today in the Gospel? “I am the light of the world. No one who follows me will be in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
Jesus gives us the Holy Spirit, as we heard in the Gospel. It says the Spirit wasn’t given at that moment because Jesus was not yet glorified, but Jesus is now glorified and so the Spirit is now given. God gives us the Fire of the Spirit that enlightens, that leads us to Christ, the light of the world: the light, which it says in the beginning of the Gospel, shines on in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. Darkness cannot overcome us as long as we cling to the Light and embrace the Light. If we choose darkness, then darkness swallows us up real fast because it’s always waiting for us, but when we cling to the Light, evil cannot harm us.
Now fire also gives heat. Fire warms cold hearts and enkindles the lukewarm. That’s something that we also have to be aware of, because Jesus says He spits the lukewarm out of his mouth. What a horrible thing! So we’d better make ourselves available to that Fire that ignites us, that enkindles us, so that we aren’t lukewarm, mediocre in our spiritual life and our efforts.
You know, God has a sense of humor. He pulled a little joke on me yesterday during Vespers. I was praying at the beginning of Vespers that He would put a burning love for Jesus into my heart. Well, within a couple minutes, I got a very unpleasant case of heartburn! So I said to Him, “Very funny, but that’s not exactly what I was asking for! I want the fire of love, not of stomach acid.” But maybe He was just trying to make the distinction that there are different kinds of fires. Or that maybe there was still some work to be done in me, because just like there’s another fire that’s not of God, there’s another heat that’s not of God. This heat is the heat of disordered desire and passions, of misdirected energies and efforts. It is—I found this phrase in a commentary, which referred to an old Latin hymn—it’s called the calor noxius, the toxic fire, the harmful heat which is the bile-fire, the dark fire that we have to avoid if we want to live in the grace of the sweetness of that fire of love of the Holy Spirit.
We want the Holy Spirit to transform us. The light dispels the darkness. The heat enkindles the heart. It purifies us of the dross of our sins and bad habits and our general laziness and lack of fervor in loving and serving God. He has to give us a hotfoot, set a match under us and get us going, so that we can live in the way He calls us to live and enables us to live by His grace. We need to be remade, renewed and revived—which means given life again, a new life.
God wants to do something for us, beginning today at this very Liturgy. The Holy Spirit is being given, but will you receive? That’s the question. The Holy Spirit comes to open hearts, for He dwells only in open hearts. If we want to close the door, He’s not going to come in. He’s going to knock, but He’s going to wait for us to open. So we have that terrible power to say no to the Holy Spirit, no, don’t come in. No, don’t bring me the fire of your love and of your light. No, go away. Well, He will, if you say that. But where does that leave us? In the darkness, that evil darkness, that bile-pool of sins, the place where the demons work.
We might ask, after all of that, can the Holy Spirit really transform us? Looking back perhaps at our own track record, can He really change us or is this just wishful thinking, that we come here on Pentecost and say, “come Holy Spirit and do something with me”? Well, the Holy Spirit can. If the Holy Spirit can change bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, then He can change us. That’s the final prayer of the anaphora, of the consecration of the bread and wine. We ask the Father to change these gifts by the Holy Spirit.
So this should be our prayer today on Pentecost to the Father: Change us by your Holy Spirit! Make us into the Body of Christ, the members of the Body of Christ that we are. We’re called to bear fruit, and to be recognized as belonging to Christ and live in His Spirit. That’s what the Christian life is about.
So we have to pray for the sweet-fire and pray that the other image, the living water, will extinguish any bile-fire that may still be in us. We need to be ignited with God’s love, and with love for God, just like the sacrifice of Elijah was ignited by fire from Heaven. He prepared the sacrifice, and just to taunt his enemies, he poured buckets of water all over it and then said, OK, God, show them who is God! And fire came down from Heaven and consumed the whole sacrifice.
We have to offer ourselves to God as a sacrifice, so that that fire from Heaven will come down—not to consume us, but to fill us and transform us. It can consume all the junk and remove it, but save the image of Jesus that is still maybe buried within us, and purify, enlighten, and bring it all to its full beauty and manifestation in lives that are pleasing to God, that give glory to God, and that are a service to our brothers and sisters.
Don’t lose the opportunity. Now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation. So let the fire fall! Say yes to the grace of the Holy Spirit, yes to the will of God for the transformation of your life.
Unlike material fire, the fire of the Holy Spirit doesn’t automatically heat or enlighten what it touches. It’s a personal Fire that works only with a personal, free response. So for that fire to catch in our hearts we have to let it. One can receive the flaming ember of the Eucharist or, as one author put it, the “Fire in the Blood” of the chalice and still remain cold inside if the heart is not open to grace. Some people receive Communion thousands of times and still never change. That’s a sign that something inside is not getting ignited by the fire of the Holy Spirit, even among those who might consider themselves pious people.
So resolve to be rekindled, and receive the Holy Spirit today from the Heart of Christ, from the everlasting love of God the Father. Receive the sweet-fire, and live for Him who is the Light of the world.