Fire in our life
Along with air, earth and water, fire is one of the traditional Aristotelian elements of nature. Australians think about fire mostly in the summer when we become fearful of the prospect of bushfires. This is especially so if we have had a dry winter and spring. In these circumstances fire becomes a threat, as we fear for our properties, our bushland and our native creatures, probably in that order. In winter we may also think of fires if it becomes cold enough. But these days our heating does not usually come directly from open fires; it reaches us by more indirect means, such as electricity and gas. The result of this is that, thanks to modern technology and the comforts it brings, we only occasionally think of fire directly. And when we do, we are most aware of its destructive capacities.
Francis and fire
Back in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Francis of Assisi took rather a different approach to fire and its qualities. In his famous Canticle of the Sun, a version of which we still sing with great enjoyment in Hymn 100, Francis begins by praising Brother Sun. He is well aware that the fire of the sun “lights our day”. Moreover, the “radiant splendid beauty” of the sun reminds him of God. Later in the Canticle Francis addresses fire directly, calling it “Brother” and praising God for lightening the darkness of night through it. He finds Brother Fire to be fine, happy, powerful and strong. In doing so he is reflecting the thought of some of the biblical psalms, such as Psalm 148 where the writer calls upon fire to praise God. Do such words applied to fire have any meaning for us early in the twenty-first century? Have Francis and the Psalms something to teach us in this day and age? Or are we beyond all this personalising of nature? There are a number of issues to bear in mind as we address these questions.
Fire and civilisation
The first thing to note is that, although these days we pay only periodic attention to fire as an element of the created world, fire and its qualities remain basic to our existence. We do well to consider this from time to time and include such consideration in our worship of God. The constant fire of the sun brings us light and heat; without it life would not be possible. Fire turns combustibles of many kinds into light, heating and power, and it is on this process that much of our modern way of life depends. Fire is, in fact, one of humankind's essential tools: the production and control of fire started humans on the path towards civilisation. Though fire was used long before, it was not until 7,000 BCE that Neolithic man acquired reliable fire-making skills, necessary for the coming of civilisation. It was fire that turned raw meat and vegetables into cooked and edible food, transformed base minerals into metals that were useful and durable, and converted porous dirt and clay into pottery that held liquids effectively.
Fire in mythology
The acquisition and control of fire was of such importance in the development of communal life that it played an extremely significant role in many mythologies around the world. Indeed, fire is considered to be one the most symbolically complex phenomena in the whole history of human culture. You are perhaps aware of the Greek tale of Prometheus, the Titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans. For this theft he received the cruel everlasting punishment of being chained to a rock and having his liver eaten by an eagle each day. These days we consider the Prometheus tale to be both somewhat revolting and rather quaint. However, it does still intrigue us through the importance that it attaches to fire and to the dangers that such an acquisition brings. For the Greeks fire was primarily a divine possession that was acquired by humans for their development, albeit at some cost. Perhaps with the myth of Prometheus we have also lost a sense of the divine origin of the fire on which we so utterly depend but which we take so readily for granted.
Fire and worship
Fire plays some role in our normal services of worship, principally through our use of candles. We invest the flame of the simple candle with considerable symbolic value. It radiates light and symbolises the illumination of God in the world. But it also specifically symbolises Jesus as the Light of the World. This is a truth that the gospel of John highlights in the words: “I am the light of the world; anyone who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” When we are inspired by candlelight in a church, it is salutary to reflect on the gift of fire that we have received.
Fire in the Bible
Fire plays a highly significant role in many parts of the Bible and is often associated with a theophany, or appearance of God. One of the first significant occurrences is the experience of Moses at Sinai, where he witnesses what has come to be called “the burning bush”. Those of you who come from the Presbyterian tradition may remember that the logo of the Presbyterian Church in Australia featured the burning bush, along with the Latin words meaning “And yet it was not being consumed”. Through this startling wilderness phenomenon of a bush that is on fire but is not consumed, Moses encounters God. He receives instructions to deliver the Hebrew people, of which he is one, from slavery in Egypt. Later contact of Moses with God is also associated with fire in one form or another. For example in Exodus 19:18 we read: “And Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and the smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain quaked greatly.” It is also noteworthy that in their wilderness wanderings the Hebrews are led by night by a pillar of fire. From these references it is clear that the biblical writers respected the characteristics of fire and saw them as manifestations of the God that they followed. This is particularly obvious in the very last verse of Exodus: “For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel at each stage of their journey.” Whatever be the explanation of this phenomenon, belief in the guiding hand of God could not be more vividly represented.
The prophet Elijah tends to be associated with fire in his dealings with God. One spectacular example is his encounter with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. You will recall that, after the ineffectual rantings of the prophets of Baal, Elijah calls upon his God to send down fire to consume the sacrifice. The divine fire duly arrives in spectacular fashion and is seen to justify Elijah's faith. At the end of Elijah's life we are told that he is taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire drawn by horses of fire. This is vivid poetic language and these days we tend not to take it literally. It does, however, seem clear that, for the biblical writers, fire with its various attributes was related to the God that they worshipped. It was gift of particular significance. Hence it became a feature of the prophet Elijah's encounters with the divine.
In numerous parts of the Bible fire is, in fact, associated with God. In Deuteronomy 4:24 we read: “For the Lord your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God”. This is a vision that corresponds to the vision of Ezekiel in the first chapter of his prophecy. Furthermore, at the end of the Bible, in Revelation 1:14, the Son of Man is described as having “eyes like a flame of fire”.
Fire and the Holy Spirit
However, when we think of fire and the Godhead, it is particularly to the Holy Spirit that our attention turns. When the gathered apostles have the experience of receiving the spirit on the day of Pentecost, wind and fire are distinctively in evidence: “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.” John the Baptist is presented as foretelling this phenomenon just prior to the baptism of Jesus. According to Matthew, John said: “[the one who is to come] will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matt. 3:11).
This association of fire with the Holy Spirit has continued in Christian tradition. At times in Christian art the tongue of fire indicates the presence of the Holy Spirit. And, nearer to our day, the dove in the logo of the Uniting Church of Australia the has red wings and body. They are the wings and body of flame of a dove that represents the Holy Spirit at work in the world. Such contemporary use of fire to represent a characteristic of the third person of the Trinity maintains contact with a long biblical and Christian tradition. It also poses the question: what is the religious significance of fire in the world of the twenty-first century?
Fire as a reminder of God
The association of fire with God encourages us to reconsider some of the characteristics of fire that we tend to forget in our technologically sophisticated, urban lives. First, fire brings us illumination through the light that it spreads, whether this light comes from a candle, an open fire or indirectly through electricity. This association with the divine is highlighted by Jesus' claim to be “the light of the world” and by John's description of Jesus as “the true light, which enlightens every person”. Moreover, through the key role that it played in the development of civilisation, fire reminds us of God's guiding and illuminating hand in the course of human affairs.
Second, with the warmth that it brings in cold weather, fire reminds us of the warmth of God's love and of the care that God takes of us. This is fire in its more delicate mode, closely related to the symbol of the dove with its message of hope and peace. This comforting sense of fire is encapsulated in John Henry Newman's famous hymn “Lead kindly light, amid the encircling gloom”. Through the words of this hymn with their evocation of the light of a candle the comfort of faith in God is affirmed. With this in mind it is interesting to note that some scholars believe the Hebrew word for “fire” to be derived from a Semitic root meaning “to be sociable and friendly”.
At the same time, however, fire exists in a more violent mode, as we in Australia know only too well through our periodic bushfires. This severe, often destructive, aspect of fire is no doubt why punishment in the Bible often comes through the agency of fire. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by sulphur and fire from heaven and the traditional view of the notions of Hell and Purgatory usually involves punishment by fire. While we need not take such images literally, they remind us that, as a matter of experience, God's laws are not to be trifled with. Severe consequences follow the abuse of the principles of good living. In the world today the results of human greed and selfishness are evident in social dysfunction and abuse of the environment.
But even within the destruction brought by fire in its violent mode there is room for hope. In Australia we know that some seeds need fire in order to germinate and that the ash from fires has a fertilising effect to promote regrowth. The spirit is at work regenerating what has apparently been destroyed. This is close to what the prophet Malachi meant when he prophesied that the Messiah would be “like a refiner's fire”, words that Handel included in The Messiah . Malachi writes: “For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' SOAP; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, till they present right offerings to the Lord.”(3:2b-3). The effect of fire can be not just to destroy but also to refine and purify as well as to regenerate. This is why fire commonly figures in purification rites among peoples around the world: infected persons may have to walk round a fire, jump through it or over it.
Fire as a symbol carries all these meanings and connotations, which repay reflection. When you ponder the flame of a burning candle in church, consider from time to time what the flame can tell you of God. And examine a little more closely the Uniting Church logo, especially the wings and body of fire of the dove. It is highly significant that fire has come to be associated in Christian tradition with the Holy Spirit and also significant that the Uniting Church has chosen to continue this tradition so prominently in its logo. These facts suggest that with the psalmist and with Francis of Assisi we should be thankful to God for the gift of fire.