I Have Come to Cast A Fire On the Earth! – A Meditation on the Feast of Pentecost

What a wondrous and challenging feast we celebrate at Pentecost. A feast like this challenges us, because it puts to the lie a lazy, sleepy, hidden, and tepid Christian life. The Lord Jesus had said to Apostles, and still says to us: I have come to cast a fire on the earth! (Luke 12:49). This is a feast about fire, about a transformative, refining, and purifying fire that the Lord wants to kindle in us and in this world.

The Readings today speak to us of the Holy Spirit in three ways: The Portraits of the Spirit, the Proclamation of the Spirit and the Propagation by the Spirit. Let’s look at all three.

I. The Portraits of the Spirit – The Reading today speaks of the Holy Spirit using two images: rushing wind, and tongues of fire. These two images recall Psalm 50 which says, Our God comes, he does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, round about him a mighty tempest. (Psalm 50:3).

Rushing Wind – Notice how the text from Acts opens: When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were.

This text brings us to the very root meaning of the word “Spirit.” For “spirit” refers to “breath,” and we have this preserved in our word “respiration,” which means breathing. So, the Spirit of God is the breath of God, the Ruah Adonai (the Spirit, the breath of God).

Genesis 1:2 speaks of this saying the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And Genesis 2:7 speaks even more remarkably of something God did only for man, not the animals: then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul (Gen 2:7).

So the very Spirit of God was breathed into Adam! But, as we know, Adam lost this gift and died spiritually when he sinned.

Thus we see in this passage from Acts an amazing and wonderful resuscitation of the human person as these first Christians (120 in all) experience the rushing wind of God’s Spirit breathing spiritual life back into them. God does C.P.R. and brings humanity, dead in sin, back to life! The Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us once again as in a temple (cf 1 Cor 3:16). It has been said that Christmas is the feast of God with us, Good Friday is the Feast of God for us, but Pentecost is the Feast of God in us.

Tongues of Fire – The text from Acts says, Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them.

The Bible often speaks of God as fire, or in fiery terms. Moses saw God as a burning bush. God led the people out of Egypt through the desert as a pillar of fire. Moses went up on to a fiery Mt. Sinai where God was. Psalm 97 says, The LORD reigns; let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad! Clouds and thick darkness are round about him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. Fire goes before him, and burns up his adversaries round about. His lightnings lighten the world; the earth sees and trembles. The mountains melt like wax before the LORD, before the Lord of all the earth. The heavens proclaim his righteousness; and all the peoples behold his glory. (Ps 97:1-6). Scriptures call God a Holy fire, a consuming fire (cf Heb 12:29) and a refining fire (cf Is. 48:10; Jer 9:7; Zec 13:9; & Mal 3:3).

And so it is that our God, who is a Holy Fire, comes to dwell in us through his Holy Spirit. And as a Holy Fire, He refines us by burning away our sins and purifying us. As Job once said, But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold (Job 23:10).

And he is also preparing us for judgement, for if God is a Holy Fire, then who may endure the day of his coming or of our going to Him? What can endure the presence of Fire Himself? Only that which is already fire. Thus we must be set afire by God’s love.

So, in the coming of the Holy Spirit God sets us on fire to make us a kind of fire. In so doing, he purifies and prepares us to meet him one, He who is a Holy Fire.

II. The Proclamation of the Spirit. – You will notice that the Spirit Came on them like “tongues” of Fire. And the reference to tongues is no mere accident. For notice how the Holy Spirit moves them to speak, and ultimately to witness. The text says: And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem. At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. They were astounded, and in amazement they asked, “Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his native language? We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.”

So behold how the Holy Spirit moves them to proclaim, not just in the safety of the upper room, but also in holy boldness before the crowds who have gathered.

Notice the transformation! Moments ago these were frightened men who gathered only behind locked doors, in secrecy. They were huddled together in fear. But now they go forth to the crowds and boldly proclaim Christ. They have gone from fear to faith, from cowardice to courage, from terror to testimony!

And how about us? Too many Christians are silent, dominated by fear. Perhaps they fear being called names, or not being popular. Perhaps they are anxious about being laughed at, or resisted, or of being asked questions they don’t feel capable of answering. Some Christians are able to gather in the “upper room” of the parish and be active, even be leaders. But once outside the “upper room” they slip into undercover mode. They become secret agent Christians.

Well, the Holy Spirit wants to change that, and to the degree that we have really met Jesus Christ and experienced his Holy Spirit we are less “able” to keep silent. An old Gospel song says, I thought I wasn’t gonna testify, but I couldn’t keep it to myself, what the Lord has done for me. The Holy Spirit, if authentically received, wants to give us zeal and joy, and burn away our fear, so that testifying and witnessing are natural to us.

Note also how the Spirit “translates” for the apostles, for the crowd before them spoke different languages, but all heard Peter and the others in their own language. The Spirit therefore assists not only us, but also those who hear us. My testimony is not dependent only on my eloquence, but also on the grace of the Holy Spirit who casts out deafness and opens hearts. Every Christian should remember this. Some of our most doubtful encounters with others can still bear great fruit on account of the work of the Holy Spirit who “translates” for us and overcomes many obstacles that we might think insurmountable.

III. The Propagation by the Spirit – In the great commission the Lord said, Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age (Matt 28:19ff). He also said, as we have noted, I have come to cast a fire on the earth and How I wish the blaze were already ignited (Luke 12:49).

But how is the Lord going to do this?

Perhaps a picture will help. My parish church is dedicated to the Holy Spirit under the title: Holy Comforter. Above the high altar is the Latin inscription: Spiritus Domini, replevit orbem terrarum (The Spirit of the Lord, filled the orb of the earth). (See photo, above right, of our high altar).

And yet, we may wonder how He will do this.

But the walls of my parish Church answer the question. The clerestory walls are painted Spanish Red, and upon this great canvas are also painted the lives of 20 saints, surrounding us like a great cloud of witnesses (cf Heb 12:1). (See also, video below). And over the head of every saint is a tongue of fire.

THIS is how the Spirit of the Lord fills the earth. It is not “magic fairy dust,” it is in the fiery transformation of every Christian, going forth into the world  to bring light and warmth to a dark and cold world. THIS is how the Lord casts fire on earth, THIS is how the Spirit of the Lord fills the orb of the earth: in the lives of saints, and, if you are prepared to accept it, in YOU.

In the end, the Great Commission (Matt 28) is “standing order No. 1.” No matter what else, we are supposed to do this. Parishes do not deserve to exist if they do not do this. We as individual Christians are a disgrace, and not worthy of the name, if we fail to win souls for Jesus Christ. The Spirit of the Lord is going to fill the orb of the earth, but only through us. The spread of the Gospel has been placed in your hands (scary isn’t it?).

Last year, my own parish, after a year of training, stepped out into our neighborhood, and went door to door and into the local park. And we announced Jesus Christ, and invited people to discover him in our parish, and in the sacraments.

Before we count even a single convert, this is already success because we are obeying Jesus Christ who said, simply, “Go!” “Go make disciples.” And, truth be told, we ARE seeing an increase in my parish. Our Sunday attendance has grown from about 450 to 520, a 15% increase. We are growing, and our attendance, while average for a downtown city parish, is going in the right direction. God never fails. God is faithful.

Spread the news: it works if you work it, so work it because God is worth it. Go make disciples. Ignore what the pollsters tell you about a declining Church and let the Lord cast a fire on the earth through you! Fires have way of spreading! Why not start one today? The Spirit of God will not disappoint.

I know this, my parish has a future because we are obeying Jesus Christ, we are making disciples. How about you and yours? If parishes do not obey, they do not deserve to exist and can expect to close one day, no matter how big they are today. I, in my short 50 years on this planet, have seen it: parishes once big, booming, and, (frankly), arrogant, are now declining and some are near closure. It happens to the best, if they do not evangelize, if they do not accomplish “Job 1.” The Lord wants to light a fire. Why not become totally fire? Let the Spirit propagate the Church through you (I am not talking about the person next to you, I am talking to you).

Happy feast of Pentecost. But don’t forget that the basic image is very challenging, for it means getting out of the “upper room,” opening the doors, and proclaiming Christ to the world. Let the Holy Spirit light a fire in you, and then, you can’t help but spread light and heat to a cold and dark world.

Let the evangelization of the whole world begin with you.

This video features details from the clerestory (upper window level) of my parish of Holy Comforter here in DC. Notice the tongue of fire above each saint. The paintings show how the Spirit of the Lord fills the orb of the earth, (see photo above), through the lives of the lives of the saints (this means you). It is not magic, it is grace, working in your life, through your gifts, and your relationships, that the Lord will reach each soul. The cloud of witnesses on the walls of my Church say simply, You are the way he will fill the earth and set it on fire. Let the blaze be ignited in you!

The song says: We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, looking on, encouraging us to do the will of the Lord. Let us stand worthy, and be faithful to God’s  call….We must not grow weary…!

24 Replies to “I Have Come to Cast A Fire On the Earth! – A Meditation on the Feast of Pentecost”

    1. Ah, you touch on an interesting debate: is Pentecost the birthday of the Church. John traces the birth to Christ’s wounded side but also makes that a Pentecost event. It is a fascinating debate.

      1. Hi Monsignor, thank you for another beautiful and inspiring reflection. Your insights always help me understand and enter into the mysteries more deeply! Thank you! I don’t know about the history of the “birthday” debate, but have often wondered about it. One thing I found really interesting is that St Augustine says in one of his sermons that Pentecost is when the Church “makes her appearing”. That might be a way of thinking of it – that the Church comes to birth from the side of Christ, but becomes “visible” to the world / manifests herself at Pentecost?? I wonder. In any case, a very joyful feast day to you!!

      2. Yes, this is very interesting to me. I’ve always heard Pentecost referred to as the Church’s birthday and accepted it, I’ve never heard this questioned or debated. Regarding the lance, although I’ve never been taught this, I’ve always viewed the Blood and Water gushing forth from the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the Cross brought forth by lance as the Church’s inception or conception, I’m not sure which word fits best? Birth is always preceded by conception. I’d love to see more on this!!!!

        1. Or is it possible that the Church’s conception was the Immaculate Conception or maybe the Annunciation, it’s birth the lance which brought forth the blood and water from the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Pentacost it’s Confirmation? Much to ponder…..

          1. Hi Dismas, well the traditional Patristic idea is that just as Eve came out of Adam’s side, so the Church comes out of Christ’s side. So that is definitely a “birth” image. But when I asked my parish priest today, he wondered out loud, “If the Church was born from the side of Christ, as in John’s gospel, then what is the role of the Spirit at Pentecost? Simply to manifest the Church to the world?” I had to ponder that! It has to be more than simply “revealing”. I think it has to do with “animating” – breathing life into. Also anointing with power. So that it completes something begun at the cross with the piercing of Christ’s side…. Just a thought!

          2. Just as “the man” a/k/a “Adam” did not have full life until God breathed His Spirit into him, so too did the Church not fully come alive until she was filled with the Spirit — the Lord, the Giver of Life — at Pentecost. Only when filled with the Spirit is the Church capable of being the Virgin Bride of Christ.

            Before then, the “assembly” of Apostles and disciples was a confused bunch in hiding. Although the formation of the Church had begun much earlier, the process did not come to completion until Pentecost, when the Church burst out of the womb and into the world with wisdom, counsel, knowledge, understanding, fortitude, piety, and fear of the Lord.

          3. Lisa/Bender,

            Just thinking out loud, but both your comments provide for me a powerful allegory of a restored Garden of Eden on earth. I don’t think I’ve ever considered the Church Militant in these terms before…

          4. Lisa,

            You’ll be pleased to know that the Holy Father in his homily at Mass this morning said the following regarding Pentacost: “The Holy Spirit animates the Church”, the Pope said.

            At his afternoon Regina Coeli audience he stated: “This (Pentecost) was the ‘Baptism’ of the Church”, he said.

            I received this information from the Vatican Information Service (VIS) You can see the articles I pulled the quotes and here: http://visnews-en.blogspot.com/ You can sign up to receive these daily updates in your e-mail box here: http://mlists.vatican.va/mailman/listinfo/visnews_en

  1. @ Msgr Pope. Maybe the Church looks at it as the day the Church was empowered to Evangelize. Before the day of Pentecost many did nogt know what the Holy Spirit was. They were only familiar with baptism. Help me understand this. You have more background on the Church’s view on this subject

  2. Wish my parish’s music sounded as good as that! 🙂

    The tongues of fire in the Book of Enoch are very similar.

  3. Is the first reading of the vigil (Gn 11:1-9) a corollary?

    “Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city
    and a tower with its top in the sky,
    and so make a name for ourselves;
    otherwise we shall be scattered all over the earth.'”

    “The Lord said, ‘If now, while they are one people,
    all speaking the same language,
    they have started to do this,
    nothing will later stop them from doing whatever they presume to do.
    Let us then go down there and confuse their language,
    so that one will not understand what another says.'”

    Does it speak to the current ethical challenge of “if we can do it, we ought to do it,” e.g. cloning, embryonic stem cell research to “make a name for ourselves?” Are we revisiting the early 20th century when workers and their families were fungible?

    Do the words, “nothing will later stop them from whatever they presume to do” resonate today? Is the language of adherents to “if we can do it, we ought to do it,” becoming a dominant, if not universal, language?

    Does capricious and arbitrary disregard of the dignity and sanctity of each life, from conception to natural death. light a fire in us?

  4. I recently heard something on Catholic radio about how God is, in so many words, perfect and hard as a diamond, existing in his throne room, perfect and perfectly content unto himself, a haughty king. It bothered me because my mind immediately leapt to Christ crying for Lazarus, crying for Martha and Mary’s tears, and oh so many other examples. This is not the God who needs nothing and wants nothing. He wants and even needs our love (God needing is a great mystery)! He must have an object for his love and he wants, naturally, that love to return to him (I think people who claim God only wants to give love and not receive it back again are being very uncharitable to Him). That is why the Incarnation even happened, and all that followed. He wanted our love and felt sorry for us and wanted to help us. Thus, He was not content until that was accomplished. The diamond-hard God was not content.

    I appreciate scripture’s reassurances that our Lord was fully human as well as fully divine: “…cast fire…how I wish it were already burning!”, weeping over Jerusalem from a vantage point, etc, all reveal that the Holy Trinity is not the stoic entity of deism and gnosticism, but rather a God who hitches up his skirt and scandalously runs out to meet the prodigal in the road, a God who weeps, suffers, worries, laments, joys, puns, etc. I think it is very foolish and ill-considered to foist an “inhuman” coldness onto our God. We have all these traits because we are like unto Him. We must remember that. We are fallen, imperfect shades of Him. satan and the world constantly try to destroy the relationship between sheep and shepherd, sons and father, by destroying the trust that it is, after all, a familial relationship with shared, cozy, dependable traits. We joy just as He does, we sorrow just as He does.

    Ave Maria to the one who gave Him his humanity.

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