WHEN THE DAY OF PENTECOST had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them. And a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit...” (Acts 2:1-4a; all biblical quotes in this article come from the New Revised Standard Version).
Using the image of fire, the Acts of the Apostles describes the descent of the Holy Spirit 50 days (Pentecost) after Jesus rose from the dead. The Spirit came to console, fortify and empower them for what lay ahead—the work of telling everyone the wondrous story of Jesus.
But why would the Spirit come as fire? Fire is probably the most powerful of the four traditional elements (the others being water, air and earth). It’s also the most mysterious. The symbol for the Third Person of the Godhead naturally evokes reverence and awe.
The Easter Vigil begins with the lighting of a fire. The result is light, heat and warmth. Then the big paschal candle is lit, followed by all the little individual candles. Fire is contagious. If unchecked, it is all-consuming. It spreads outward and upward. Soon the whole church building exudes light, heat and warmth.
Like the other elements, fire has positive and negative aspects. And because it is connected to the release of energy, fire is of urgent concern today.