Why is it that, when we take the youth group to camp on retreat, we always make sure there is a campfire on the schedule? Why do we put up with the dirt, soot, and smoke of a fireplace in our home when we no longer need it for heat? Why do we light candles, build a fire on the beach, at the campsite, or in the fire pit in the backyard?
It’s because there is something strange and beautiful about fire. It not only provides heat and light, but it brings us together. Entranced by the flickering flames, our lives are enhanced by the promise of warmth in the cold and light in the darkness. We’re a little afraid of the destructive force of fire and fascinated by the way fire consumes the fuel, radiating its energy and power.
In the sixth century B.C. the Greek philosopher Heraclitus taught that the raw energy of the cosmos was fire. Things are constantly changing, but fire itself is a constant. Today we would probably call this force “energy,” but fire remains a powerful symbol for that invisible force within creation. In a poem entitled “That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire,” the Jesuit poet Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins observed the changing nature of beautiful creation, but saw that there was a constant, surging energy force beneath it all, and wrote, “Million-fueled, nature’s bonfire burns on.”
Word on fire
Heraclitus also taught that there was a guiding principle behind all creation called the “Logos” or “the Word.” St. John the Evangelist would pick up this Greek philosophical concept five centuries later and, in the beginning of his Gospel, write, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
The Word and the fire are both vital symbols of the creative power of God in the world. Eastern religions refer to this same “force” beneath all things, but Christians believe that “force” has a face, and the face is that of Jesus Christ, the Son of God — the fire of life and the Word made flesh. St. Paul, puts it this way: “‘In him we live and move and have our being,’” (Acts 17:28).
And elsewhere St. Paul says:
For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together (Colossians 1:16-17).
This creative power of God was glimpsed through the symbol of fire throughout the Old Testament, and then it comes into focus when the Holy Spirit floods into the world through the resurrection victory of Jesus Christ.
Fire of death
While the philosophers saw fire as the original energy source burning at the heart of all things, they were not blind to the fact that fire is also a destructive force. The author of the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament echoed the Old Testament prophet when he warned, “For our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29; see Deuteronomy 4:24). Certainly God used fire as the means to consume the wickedness of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (see Genesis 18–19).
The fact that fire burns up all that is worthless reveals its purifying power. Writing to the Christians in the city of Corinth, St. Paul warned them to build spiritual lives with good works that will endure a purifying fire.
If anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, the work of each will come to light, for the Day will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire [itself] will test the quality of each one’s work. If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person will receive a wage. But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire (1 Corinthians 3:12-15).
The furious fire of God therefore burns up everything that is unworthy. This is the fire Jesus talked about when he referred to Gehenna or hell. Gehenna was a constantly burning trash dump on the outskirts of the city of Jerusalem. It was also a place where infant sacrifice had been offered and the bodies of criminals were thrown to be burned.
Jesus said it was the place where “the fire was unquenchable,” and he used this stinking pile of burning garbage as a symbol of the eternal flames that punish the wicked. In our day the image burned in our minds is of forest fires, oil slicks in flames, or the ever-burning mountains of landfill outside cities in the developing world. With stinking smoke and searing flames, Gehenna is a place of everlasting destruction and torment.
Fire of life
More often in the Scriptures, fire is the symbol not of destruction, but of God’s life and power. The light burst forth on the first day of creation, and Moses encountered God the Creator in the desert as he came face-to-face with the mysterious burning bush (see Exodus 3). From the flames he learned the name of God. This Old Testament symbol connects mysteriously with the cosmic fire of Heraclitus. The Greek philosopher said the eternal fire was the source of all things, and from the burning bush God revealed to Moses that his name is “I AM.” In other words, God does not simply exist. He is existence itself. He does not produce the fire of life. He is the fire of life.
That fire accompanied the Hebrews on their great pilgrimage out of Egypt to the Promised Land. By day they were led by a cloud, and by night they were guided by a pillar of fire. When the Ten Commandments were given to Moses on Mount Sinai, the peak of the mountain was wreathed in fire and smoke, representing the consuming fire of God’s presence (see Exodus 20).
Later when Elijah ascended the same mountain, God did not speak to him in the earthquake, wind, or fire, but in the still small voice (see 1 Kings 19). However, later he saw the fire of God when he was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind and a chariot of fire (see 2 Kings 2).
In the Old Testament we see God’s love revealed in signs and symbols, but in the New Testament it is revealed in clarity and truth. The resurrection of Jesus was characterized as a burning radiance — bursting from the darkness of death and destruction and on fire with light, life, and love.
Holy Spirit: Puri-fire
At Pentecost the same fire that burned at Creation, at the burning bush, in the pillar, the chariot of fire, and the Resurrection came down on each one of the apostles. There we see the Church in infancy. The Blessed Virgin Mary is surrounded by the apostles, and the Holy Spirit descends as a mighty wind and in tongues of fire.
This same infilling of the Holy Spirit is symbolized in the liturgy as the great baptismal candle is carried into the darkened church at the Easter Vigil. It symbolizes the resurrected Lord bursting from the tomb. In that light we see light, and from this light all the smaller candles of the faithful are lit. At Baptism we receive this light, and at the Easter Vigil, as we see the handheld candles, we participate in the spiritual reality that the same fire of life through which the world was created and constantly burns is the fire of new life that each one of the baptized owns in their hearts.
The heart on fire is the blazing symbol within the Catholic devotion of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Christ is pictured pointing to his exposed heart, which is surrounded by flames. He points to his burning heart of love not only to remind us that his love is constantly burning with passion for his beloved children, but also because we are to have that same intense love burning in our own hearts for him and for others.
That the fire of divine love should burn in our hearts is therefore a reminder that we hold within our lives a flickering flame. It is the same fire that charges the whole cosmos. We are like little lanterns in a darkened world. Jesus used the same image saying:
You are the light of the world. … Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father (Matthew 5:14-16).