In a recent homily, the priest mentioned being a “pyromaniac for the Holy Spirit.” It was quite an interesting phrase, which made me think about fire. Traditionally, when I think of fire in a spiritual context, I think of hell. But at Pentecost, “tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them” describes the Holy Spirit. (Acts 1:3). How can fire be used to illustrate these two opposites?
As for hell, Jesus referred to the unquenchable fires of Gehenna (Mark 9:43-48). In His time, Gehenna was a smoldering place where refuse of all types, including the bodies of criminals, was discarded. In Revelation, hell is described as a pool of fire and sulfur. Sulfur burns with a blue flame and a suffocating odor. It doesn’t take much of that smell to make one breathless. In any case, it is a place without life and apart from God.
However, Jesus also said, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” (Lk 12:49). It is with this burning desire that He speaks of His “baptism” that he needs to undergo; and of His passion, death and resurrection, which will open for humanity the ability to be reconciled with God, to love God and do His will. The gift of the Holy Spirit, represented by tongues of fire at Pentecost, manifests Jesus’ continuing desire. As a result of this burning love and desire, we have the Church and the persuasive preaching of the Apostles to turn people to Jesus and the Way He taught.
So what is the difference between the two fires? Hell is the fire of destruction. It distorts and eventually consumes what it is burning. It is a place of misery, where even the simple act of breathing is labored and undesirable.
The other fire is that of creation, like melting down precious metal to its liquid state and refashioning into beautiful works of art. It does not change the true essence, but transforms into beyond what it originally was. And when one sees such a creation, inspiration for change can result.
Every baptized and confirmed Catholic has received the Holy Spirit. We are all called to be “pyromaniacs” for Holy Spirit: to spread the Word of Jesus and of His love and mercy, and to invite each person into a personal relationship with Him.