Touching Fire

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost | Luke 12:49-56

If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on someone else’s. — Joseph Campbell

The Greeks told the story of the Titan Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and giving it to men. He knew that the gift of fire would raise humanity to a new plane, and he knew that he would be condemned to eternal torment for his gift. To put it another way, Prometheus sacrificed himself for the good of humanity. It is a hero tale that in many ways foreshadows the story of Jesus.

Fire is such a strange thing. It seems to have all of the qualities of a living being—it grows, consumes, even reproduces itself. Fire seems to move of its own will, dancing, even speaking to us with the crackling voice of heat. Fire is sometimes a result, sometimes a cause. Either way, it changes things.

Fire may define what it means to be human. We once said that our use of tools separated us from other animals, but then we began watching apes more closely. And otters. And crows. We talked about our problem-solving abilities, but there were still the apes, the otters, and the crows, not to mention octopi escaping from aquariums and opening jars with their sucker lined arms. We went on and on about our opposable thumbs, as though we had produced them ourselves from sheer will and determination, but then we noticed raccoons calmly opening our trash cans, and we gave up talking about thumbs so much. A few souls pointed out that we farm and keep livestock and train animals to work for us, but even ants tend aphids, milking them for whatever one milks from an aphid. Then we noticed the cats, watching us with amusement as we performed the duties they had trained us to do.

Not even cats have learned to use fire.

One of my grandmothers had a fiery disposition. If she loved you, all was warm and well in your world. If she disapproved, or worse, if she thought a thing truly wrong—taking advantage of the weak was one of the worst sins—then she would flare up, hot with anger. She was a remarkable woman, and she changed things. She refined the people around her.

Folio 14v of the Rabula Gospels (Florence, Biblioteca Mediceo Laurenziana, cod. Plut. I, 560), Pentecost
Pentecost, from the Rabula Gospels, 6th century

Scripture often describes God in terms of fire, but never as ice, not that I have ever found. It cannot be simply that ancient Judeo-Christian writers were men and women who lived in warm climates. Ice has more to do with death than with life; no one ever tried to gather ice in order to stay alive, unless one counts the igloos of the far north, but even there it is the warmth inside that keeps people alive.

The same fire that burns chaff will bake bread. Fire gives warmth, gives light, consumes. It creates and destroys.

When Jesus says he has come to bring fire, he likely means something of both—creation and destruction. Perhaps it is impossible to do the one without the other. Some things need tearing down, refining. The heat of a forge destroys the old nature of metals even as it creates new qualities.

Sometimes we just need to bring a little light into a dark corner. Sometimes we need to bake our bread or forge a new life. Sometimes we need to burn the whole house down.

The Jesus story is about freeing and forging, burning down barriers and lies and the walls of our own self-deception. It is the story of burning coals and the catharsis of fire, but it is also the story of a smaller fire within us, the lamp lighting our path. Reaching out to God is like touching fire. The fire of the Spirit may refine us or consume us or light our path, all depending on our response.

Prometheus Bound by Peter Paul Rubens, c.1611-1618, Philadelphia Museum
Prometheus Bound by Peter Paul Rubens, c.1611-1618