Spirit and Fire

“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Luke 3:16.

Luke is the only one who introduces fire into the baptism story of Jesus. Jesus will baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit and with fire. This is a different kind of baptism and it needs to be explored to uncover what Luke intends to convey. I would like to focus my reflection on fire and see if it leads to an understanding of this passage. There are many uses of fire in the Old Testament. Theophanies were accompanied by fire. God appears to Moses in the burning bush, Exodus 3:2. By the time God appears to Elijah at Horeb in I Kings 19:12, the divine was no longer in the fire. Fire may not necessarily be a means of presenting the divine. In the New Testament fire is most commonly a metaphor for divine judgment. In early Greek thought, Aeschylus gave us Prometheus who stole fire from the gods and so gave humanity civilization. The name Prometheus means the one who thinks ahead. He is a forward thinker. I may conclude from this that fire has its origin with the divine and once in the hands of humanity, has the power to point the way ahead. Fire discloses, uncovers something without which humankind is not complete.

Heraclitus thinks fire is light. Light illuminates. It makes visible what has been hidden. When Luke says that Jesus will baptize with fire he may be indicating that the outpouring of fire upon humanity brings something new to light. This cannot be the unquenchable fire of verse 17, which surely is a metaphor for judgment. Jesus baptizing with fire is something other than judgment. Something is hidden that will be revealed by Jesus in this baptism with fire. Luke does not say what is to be revealed, only that Jesus will baptize with fire. Fire shines brightly. It is light. Baptizing with fire is baptizing with light. He who is the Light will pour out upon humankind his light, that is, he will pour out Himself. Luke may be indicating that Jesus will give Himself for humanity, that baptism conversation is a conversation about the sacrifice that Jesus will make, and therefore when Luke says that Jesus will baptize with fire he is conveying the idea of the Passion of Christ. If this argument holds, then I must conclude that the life of Christ is Passion, from beginning to end. Further, those who are baptized in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit are forever the Passion of Christ. The Revelation of John conveys the same idea: the Passion of Christ is the Passion of the Church. The fire is not judgment. It lights up the way into the Passion, and the Passion is sustained by its light. The divine which no longer inhabits fire has, by its exit, made room there for the Church to exist in the fire and be illuminated by its light and enlightened by its wisdom. That the Church exists in the fire and is not consumed may be the essential meaning of Emmanuel. It may be that today the Church is the Burning Bush, the place of revelation, the final proclamation that God is still with us.

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