Preached on the feast of Pentecost.
He has sent a fire from on high down into my bones; and he has perfected me. (Lamentations 1:13)
This text is taken from the Book of Lamentations. In it the church reflects upon service given to her in this festival of Pentecost. This gift of the Holy Spirit was given to the Apostles, founders and teachers of the church. There are three considerations to be drawn from this text clarifying this service: (1) the bountiful generosity of the Divine Giver, i.e., “He has sent a fire from on high.” “He,” of course, is the Lord on high. (2) The church as receiver of this gift, i.e., “down into my bones.” The Apostles are called “bones” because they support the church just as our bones support the building which is our body. (3) The finished perfection, i.e., “and he had perfected me.” That was the fruit of this sending forth.
The text, then, is “He has sent a fire from on high.” Consider that there is fire which the Lord sends “from on high,” i.e., the fire of grace. There is also fire which he allows to be enkindled from the depths, i.e., the fire of guilt. There is, too, the fire which he sends along a middle path, i.e., the fire of repentance.
Concerning the fire of grace which he sends from on high: I have come to bring fire to the Earth, and how I wish it were blazing already! (Luke 12:49)
Concerning the fire of guilt which is enkindled from below: I it was created the smith who blows on the coal fire. (Isaiah 54:16) The smith is the devil who blows to enkindle the fire of sin.
Concerning the fire of repentance which the Lord imposes: You tested us, God. You refined us in the fire. (Psalm 66:10)
I. First, then, we should reflect upon the fire of grace which the Lord “sends from on high.” When we consider the properties of fire, we realize that it is an accurate description of grace. Fire has brightness in appearance, warmness of effect, quickness of movement. In the same way, grace shines because of knowledge, warms through love, enkindles and moves as a result of prayerfulness.
(A) Grace shines because of the knowledge through which God provides light for our eyes and shows us the path stretching homewards. This was well signified in Exodus where it is said of the sons of Israel:
Yahweh went before them, by day in the form of a pillar of cloud to show them the way, and by night in the form of a pillar of fire to give them light. (Exodus 13:21)
By “night” is signified our present situation of misfortunes. The Lord directs and enlightens us through this gift, the light of grace.
(B) Grace warms through love. It is through love that God arouses our hearts: Love is strong as death, jealousy relentless as Sheol. The flash of it is a flash of fire, a flame of Yahweh himself. Love no flood can quench, no torrents drown. (Song 8:6-7)
Love, through grace, is correctly called “a flash of fire” and a “flame” because it inflames the heart on the inside with yearning and from the outside by example. Appropriately, too, is added “love no flood can quench.” Actually – and this is really remarkable – the floods of distress enkindle this love: In the very heart of the water [which extinguishes everything] the flame would burn more fiercely than fire. (Wisdom 16:19)
(C) Grace stretches and moves upwards as a result of prayerfulness which lifts the heart towards higher aims. It is, accurately, called “fire”: Then the angel of Yahweh reached out the tip of the staff in his hand and touched the meat and unleavened cakes. Fire sprang from the rock and consumed the meat and unleavened cakes. (Judges 6:21)
That “angel” is Christ who is the “angel of great counsel.” (Isaiah 9:6) The “staff” is his cross. He “reached out” with this when he projected his passion. The “rock” is our hearts which, by themselves, are unyielding. Fire, indeed, “spring from the rock” from the reaching out of the staff whenever any person is wholly opened up in prayerfulness through reflection upon the passion. At that moment our hearts are encouraged, through the fire of love, and climb upwards. Nor is this surprising since fire reaches towards the place of fire which is above: It is Yahweh who speaks, whose fire is in Zion, and his furnace in Jerusalem. (Isaiah 31:9)
As a result, “the meat was consumed,” i.e., carnal lusts, since, to quote Bernard, “when one has tasted of the spirit, all flesh becomes tasteless.” (Epistle III, n. 3)
Without this fire, there is no life. Consequently everyone should exert himself in order to possess this. Those who are without it are robbed of that light which directs, the warmth that arouses, the quickness and strength which leads upwards.
Remember, then, that this fire of grace which is sent “from on high” is (1) enkindled in the patient; (2) nourished in the travelers; and (3) perfected in the beholders.
(1) It is enkindled in the patient through their rejection of sins. The Lord descends upon them: The mountain of Sinai was entirely wrapped in smoke, because Yahweh had descended on it in the form of fire. (Exodus 19:18)
“Entirely” is well chosen because: In the fire of his zeal will be devoured the whole Earth; (Zephaniah 1:18), i.e., all earthly attractions.
The “fire of divine zeal” is the fire of hatred for sin; God detests only evil. In this fire “will be devoured the whole Earth,” i.e., all earthly attractions and all guilt. It is clear from this that anyone who wishes to have this fire of divine grace in himself must pursue it in all ways and through all means. He must also hate all causes of guilt in himself and in others. Note that this is first “in himself” and then “in others”; and first and especially in those greater causes for guilt, then in the lesser ones.
(2) It is nourished in travelers through their fulfilling his precepts. Good actions relate to love just as firewood to fire: The fire. . . on the altar must not be allowed to go out. The priest must nourish it every day in the morning by adding more wood. (Leviticus 6:12)
“Wood” must always “be added” just as good actions must always be completed and divine precepts continuously heeded: If you love me you will keep my commandments. (John 14:15)
Just as a fire cannot continue without more wood, neither can the grace of God, which is love, without good actions. As Gregory comments, “There is great activity where there is love; if one refuses to be active, then love is not present.” (In Evang II, homily 30, n. 2) Previously he says that “Love for God is never idle.” Just as good actions nourish the fire of love between us and God, so, too, a gentle disposition nourishes it between us and our neighbor, both those who are friendly and those who are unfriendly: If your enemy is hungry, you should give him food, and if he is thirsty, let him drink. Thus you heap red-hot coals on his head. (Romans 12:20)
(3) This fire is perfected in the beholders through their reflection upon the Lord’s generosity: My heart had been smoldering inside me, [from remembrance of my sins] but it flared up at the thought of this [the reflection upon divine generosity]. (Psalm 39:3)
Who has a heart so unyielding that, when he reflects and considers the generosity which the Lord manifests in creation, in redemption, in calling us individually, in the promise of future glory, he is not wholly touched and transformed into love for God? If, therefore, anyone wishes to have this grace perfected in him, he must be pleasing to God. For how can grace abound in one who is displeasing to God? And how can one be “pleasing” if he does not consider the gifts which God so freely has given? Let us, then, weep, for our sins; let us fulfill those divine precepts and reflect upon his gifts so generously given to us. Thus may the fire of grace be enkindled in us, nourished, and perfected. May our Lord himself graciously provide this for us.
II. Opposite to this fire of grace is the fire of guilt. This fire does not come “from on high” since the devil enkindles it from the depths. Therefore, this fire is not of Heaven but of Earth. Its smokiness beclouds, its ravenousness devours, its violence molests those three qualities of which we have just spoken.
(A) That smoky fire which beclouds is that uncertainty of conscience which closes our eyes to the fickleness of this life: Fire fell upon them and they did not see the sun. (Psalm 57:9)
The fire which closes the eyes of the mind and keeps it from seeing the sun is that uncertainty of conscience; this so beclouds itself that it considers light to be present in darkness and, contrariwise, light as darkness: Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil, who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness! (Isaiah 5:20)
The devil cheerfully enkindles this fire; he does it especially through malicious people: You are well aware, then, that anybody who tries to live in devotion to Christ is certain to be attacked; while these wicked imposters will go from bad to worse, deceiving others and deceived themselves. (2 Timothy 3:13)
This was clearly pre-figured: Samson went off and caught 300 foxes, then took torches and turning the foxes tail-to-tail put a torch between each pair of tails. He lit the torches and set the foxes free, so that they would run about hither and thither. (Judges 15: 4-5)
What is to be understood by “foxes” other than cunning men who have “fire at their tails” because, to the very end, they are running headlong into error.
(B) That ravenous fire which devours is the passion of carnal desires: There are three insatiable things, four, indeed that never say, “Enough!” Sheol; the barren womb; Earth, which can never have its fill of water; fire, which never says, “Enough!” (Proverbs 30:16)
That, I say, is the fire both of desires of the body and desires of the eyes. This fire of carnal lust completely devours everything yet is not satiated: If I ever lost my heart to any woman, or lurked at my neighbor’s door, let my wife grind corn that is not mine, let her sleep between other’s sheets. For I should have committed a sin of lust, a crime punishable by the law, and should have lit a fire burning till Perdition, which would have devoured all my harvesting. (Job 31:9-12)
It utterly destroys everything because it takes away those gifts of body and spirit, innate and freely given, life and honor, God and oneself. Thus it destroys everything that is worthwhile. The fire of greed, i.e., desires of the eyes, is similar: The eye of the grasping man is not content with his portion, greed shrivels up the soul. (Sirach 14:9)
“Greed shrivels up the soul” due to an excessive drive of desires: There is a desire that, blazing like a furnace, cannot be quenched until it is slakes. There is a man who lusts for his own flesh: he will not give up until the fire consumes him. (Sirach 23:22-23)
This thirst, then, is like the thirst of a man with dropsy; it is increased by drinking rather than quenched.
(C) That violent fire which molests is the fury of anger: A scoundrel digs deep for mischief-making, on his lips is a fire that scorches. (Proverbs 16:27)
The “fire” which “scorches” in the mouth of the scoundrel is the fury of anger. A small word of anger enkindles a mighty fire of fury: Think how small a flame can set fire to a huge forest; the tongue is a flame like that. Among all the parts of the body, the tongue is a whole wicked world in itself: it infects the whole body; catching fire itself from hell, it sets fire to the whole wheel of creation. (James 3:5-6)
A hearthful of glowing coals starts from a single spark, and the sinner lurks for the chance to spill blood. (Sirach 11:34)
This fire is found especially amongst wrongdoers and is there enkindled: A meeting of lawless men is like a heap of hemp; they will end in a blazing fire. (Sirach 21:10)
The reason for this is that they are impatient and thus easily angered – just as hemp is easily burned.
Through this fire of guilt, the mind of the unfortunate sinner is beclouded, devoured, and molested. This fire, therefore, should be quenched. Remember that actual fires are put out in three different ways: (1) by removing the wood, (2) by pouring on water, (3) by the blasts of wind.
(1) In the same way, the fire of guilt is quenched by removing the wood, i.e., by avoiding those favorable moments. Such moments are like firewood: No wood, and the fire goes out; no talebearer, and the quarrelling dies down. (Proverbs 26:20)
The reason for this is that nasty, quarrelsome words feed the fire of fury: Do not quarrel with a man of quick tongue, do not pile logs on his fire. (Sirach 6:3)
Anyone who wishes to quench the fire of desires ought to do the same: Keep your eyes to yourself in the streets of a town, do not prowl about its unfrequented quarters. Turn your eyes away from a handsome woman, do not stare at the beauty that belongs to someone else. Woman’s beauty has led many astray; it kindles a desire like a flame. (Sirach 9:7-9)
Nor is this surprising: Can a man hug fire to his breast without setting his clothes alight? (Proverbs 6:27), as much as to say “No!”
Because of this, the Apostle Paul urges: Keep away from fornication. (1 Corinthians 6:18) And Lot was told, as he fled from burning Sodom: Run for your life. Neither look behind you nor stop anywhere on the plain. Make for the hills if you would not be overwhelmed. (Genesis 19:17)
(2) Fire is also quenched by pouring on water. This means the pouring forth of tears: Water quenches a blazing fire, almsgiving atones for sins. (Sirach 3:33)
What is that “almsgiving”? It is the almsgiving of compassion. Each one should first have compassion with himself and then with others; he should weep first for his own faults and then for those of others. Gregory comments that “the penitent person ought to wash himself daily in tears.” (Super Cant, c. 4, n. 9)
This is what the Psalmist did: I am worn out with groaning, every night I drench my pillow and soak my bed with tears. (Psalm 6:6)
Indeed, one should do this because of his own sins and those of others: Up, cry out in the nighttime, in the early hours of darkness; pour your heart out like water before Yahweh. (Lamentations 2:19)
Each person, then, ought to quench this fire in himself. It is enkindled daily: There is no virtuous man on Earth who, doing good, is ever free from sin. (Ecclesiastes 7:21)
If we say we have no sin in us, we are deceiving ourselves and refusing to admit the truth. (1 John 1:8)
(3) Finally, fire is quenched by blasts of wind. This, indeed, refers to the final evaluation when the Lord, with a strong blast, will quench through his anger those who are unwilling to quench in themselves their guilt by repentance: The wicked man’s light must certainly be put out, his brilliant blame cease to shine. (Job 18:5)
At that moment his “light must certainly be put out” when that pronouncement is made: Bind him hand and feet and throw him out into the dark! (Matthew 22:13)
Then all his delight will perish and the crime will be ground up along with the criminal. (Sirach 27:3)
One shudders violently at the very thought of that “quenching” which occurs through the wind of divine indignation! Consequently, be careful of the blasts of devilish subtlety as Job says of Behemoth: From his mouth come fiery torches, sparks of fire fly out of it. His nostrils belch smoke like a caldron boiling on the fire. His breath could kindle coals, so hot a flame issues from his mouth. (Job 41:10-12)
Therefore his subtlety must be avoided. If, however, anyone has yielded to his suggestions in any way, the sensible action is to hasten to the “streams of water,” i.e., streams of tears: As a doe longs [driven by the heat] for running streams, so longs my soul for you, my God. (Psalm 42:1)
First, however, it is proper to drag away those logs, i.e., the opportunities for sin, so that the cause for guilt is not renewed. Second, remember that the more this earthly fire is quenched, the more the heavenly fire is enkindled which the Lord today “sent down from on high” upon the Apostles. May the son of God who is blessed for all ages send this fire down upon each of us.
III. The third fire is the fire of repentance which in some way is “from the depths” and in some way is “from on high.” It comes from the depths according to what guilt deserves but from on high because of the decision of divine Justice. Furthermore, this fire has two different aspects: (A) the fire of present problems, and (B) the fire of eternal condemnation. The first must be endured; the second prevented.
(A) The fire of present problems should be endured for three reasons:
(1) This fire scrubs us clean: Yes, he is coming, says Yahweh Sabbaoth. Who will be able to resist the day of his coming? Who will remain standing when he appears? For he is like the refiner’s fire and the fullers’ alkaki. He will take his seat as refiner and purifier; he will purify the sons of Levi; (Malachi 3:2-3), i.e., through the sending of problems through which the “sons of Levi,” i.e., individuals committed to God, are purified but, contrariwise, the uncommitted are destroyed: The bellows blast away to make the fire burn away the lead. In vain; the smelter does his work, but the dress is not purged out. (Jeremiah 6:29)
Nature is destroyed but wickedness grows and increases.
(2) This fire must be endured because it proves us serviceable: He knows of every step I take. He has tested me like gold which is refined in the fire. (Job 23:10)
Consequently, he proves us and favors us because he himself “knows of my steps,” i.e., the knowledge of approval. He does not prove us for his own knowledge but that each person may be known to himself in good qualities both towards himself and his neighbor. Concerning such “proving” by which a person is proven in himself through problems: You probe my heart, examine me at night, you test me yet find nothing, no murmuring from me; (Psalm 17:3), i.e., murmurings from an impatient heart.
Concerning the “proving” of conversation with one’s neighbor: My son, if you aspire to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for an ordeal. . . since gold is tested in the fire, and chosen men in the furnace of humiliation. (Sirach 2:1, 5)
The method is thus described: These sufferings bring patience, as we know, and patience brings perseverance, and perseverance brings hope, and this hope is not deceptive. (Romans 5:3-5)
(3) The fire of present problems should be endured because it toughens us. Just as actual fire in the kiln toughens the earthenware vessels, but does not destroy them, so, too, the fire of problems toughens spiritual vessels: Should you walk through fire, you will not be scorched and the flames will not burn you. For I am Yahweh, your God. (Isaiah 43:2)
This happens if you have been a follower of God: Since the arms of the wicked are doomed to break, and Yahweh will uphold the virtuous. (Psalm 37:17)
Consequently: even in the middle of the fire I was not burned. (Sirach 51:6)
This is not surprising. Just as problems sting from the outside, so divine encouragement soothes from the inside: Indeed, as the sufferings of Christ overflow to us, so, through Christ, does our consolation overflow. (2 Corinthians 1:5)
Those vessels which lack this divine encouragement are not “fired” but broken because of their impatience: But godless men are all like desert thorns, for these are never gathered by hand; no one touches them unless with iron or the shaft of a spear, and then they are burnt in the fire; (2 Samuel 23:6-7), because they do not know how to endure that fire. In such fire, then, were destroyed those slaves of the king of Israel who wanted to seize Elijah: If I am a man of God, let fire come down from Heaven and destroy both you and your fifty men. (2 Kings 1:10)
This did happen as is related in the same place in scripture.
(B) The fire of eternal condemnation, because of its complex dreadfulness, should be dreaded and prevented.
(1) It is unquenchable: He will gather his wheat into the barn; but the chaff he will burn in a fire that will never go out. (Matthew 3:12)
This “chaff” are those sinners who have a meager amount of grace and are deficient in good actions. They will be burnt “in that fire that never goes out” when they are cast down into the depth: Their worm will not die nor their fire go out. (Isaiah 66:24)
The reason for this is that it is divine not human power that enkindles it: For in Topheth there has been prepared beforehand, yes, made ready for Molech, a pit deep and wide, with straw and wood in plenty. The breath of Yahweh, like a stream of brimstone, will set fire to it. (Isaiah 30:33)
Since he has sinned against the justice of God, he will be punished for eternity in those fiery depths which have been “prepared beforehand,” i.e., from the beginning: Go away from me, with your curse upon you, to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (Matthew 25:41)
(2) This fire should be dreaded because it is unbearable with its harshness: May red-hot embers rain down on them, may they be flung into the abyss for good. (Psalm 140:10)
They will be “flung into the abyss for good” where so much afflicts them that they cannot endure it. Nor is this surprising: He rains coals of fire and brimstone on the wicked, he serves them scorching wind as their cup-portion. (Psalm 11:6)
Into this fire sinners will be thrust: Sinners in Zion are struck with horror and fear seizes on the godless. Which of you can live with this devouring fire? Which of you can exist in everlasting flames? (Isaiah 33:14)
It is as though he says, “No one!” Therefore Paul cautions: It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Hebrews 10:31) For our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12:29)
(3) This fire should be dreaded because it is unavoidable. No one will be able to flee: Yes, a fire has blazed from my anger, it will burn to the depths of Sheol; it will devour the Earth and all its produce, it will set fire to the foundations of the mountains. (Deuteronomy 32:22)
No one, be he unimportant or important, will be able to escape the fire of divine fury: A fire precedes him as he goes, devouring all enemies around him. (Psalm 97:3)
Consequently, in no way can anyone escape – neither from outside not within: You will make them like a blazing furnace, the day that you appear, Yahweh will engulf them in his anger and fire will devour them. (Psalm 21:9)
Shudder at the thought of being thrust headlong into such fire!
Whoever does not wish to be thrust down like this must be very humble: Be very humble since the punishment for the godless is fire and worms. (Sirach 7:19)
Humbleness, indeed, is the spirit which frees one from the fire of gehenna and obtains that fire which is “sent from on high.” Augustine insists that “we are more filled with love in proportion as we are healed of the cancer of pride.” (De Trin., VIII, c. 8, n. 12) The basis, then, of complete spiritual health is sincere humbleness.
May the Lord grant this to us.