Fire for the Journey:
A Reflection on the Continuing Pentecost Story
The symbol of fire and the stories in the book of Exodus and the Acts of Apostles contain helpful points for our reflection on the Christian Celebration of the Pentecost and its on-going unfolding in the ordinariness of life.
The elements such as fire, air, water and earth, occupied important places in the religious practices of early civilizations. Significantly, fire is the most mysterious and most revered among the elements. Fire is very important in the worship of ancient religions, particularly for burning sacrifices. The fire (lightning) from heaven and its destructive force accompanied by loud thunders must have impressed the early people with the awesome power of fire. The Church also utilized the elements in her liturgical celebrations. The Season of Easter employs the symbolism of the elements, especially fire, in a more obvious manner like the lighting of the Easter fire, the procession of the Paschal Candle, the lighted candles of the faithful and the blessing of the baptismal font by immersing the lighted Paschal candle in water.
Other than the use of fire for the burning of offerings in the Old Testament, it signifies God's Presence such as Moses' experience of the burning bush.
The symbolism of fire is also important in the Exodus of the Chosen People (Exodus 40, 34 - 38 cf. Numbers 9, 15 -23). The Pentateuch showed that the pillar is a sign of God's Presence leading his people, thus, their following of the movement of the pillar is following the will of the Lord. When the people of Israel fled from Egypt to the Promised Land, a pillar of fire by night (a pillar of cloud by day) guided them. This pillar determined the movement of the Israelite camp as it journey across the desert towards the Promised Land. The Israelites move their camp when the pillar lifts from the Meeting Place and they stop wherever the pillar stops. This pillar, whenever it is not moving, rests above the Meeting Place that houses the Ark of the Covenant (the container of the stone tablets of the Law).
In the New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2, 1 - 12) narrated a story about the "tongues of fire" descending upon the community of disciples during the Feast of Pentecost. It tells how the disciples experienced strong wind shaking the place where they were gathered, followed by their vision of tongues of fire descending upon their heads. The disciples, who cowered in fear and doubts because of the persecutions, after their Pentecost experience were now filled with the gifts of the spirit, making them speak in tongues and courageously proclaiming in different languages the Good News.
These two stories contain some "signals" in its interpretation. In the books of Exodus and Numbers, the pillar of fire/cloud served as an external manifestation of God's Presence and will. The Israelites by observing the movement of the pillar discerns God's will for them. Note that this is particularly related to the movement of the camp towards the Promised Land, away from Egypt that symbolizes the Land of Slavery. The pillar of fire/cloud guides the Chosen People's movement to the land where they will have new life and new relationship with God.
On closer observation of the symbolic language of the Pentateuchal story, it is observable that the author(s?) would like to point our attention to the Torah as the guiding principle for the Israelites' journey. This is shown by the fact that the pillar of fire/clouds rests atop the Meeting Place where the Ark of the Covenant containing the Decalogue is kept. The pillar points to a deeper truth that the observance of the Law is the ultimate guide of the People towards freedom. The pillar reminded the Israelites that the covenant and the consequent relationship between them and Lord is their guide in the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, from slavery to freedom, from death to life.
The story of the Pentecost experience of the disciples in the Acts of Apostles contains some echoes of this Exodus story. Here, the symbol of fire played a similar function in the narratives. Admittedly, there is little parallelism in terms of the cloud in the Acts (although, it might be noted that the wind that shook the place where the disciples gathered can be a symbolic replacement of the cloud since both shares the element of air).
The earthly Meeting Place where God meets his people through Moses no longer exists. The same is true with the Ark of the Covenant and the stone tablets that contained the Commandments. What we have now is the person of Jesus who came to fulfill the Law. The Letter to the Hebrews expounded on Jesus being the High Priest of the New Covenant who entered into the Meeting Place to meet the Lord in a way far more significant than that of the Old Testament high priests. Jesus has entered (ascended) into the Holy of Holies of the Heavenly Meeting Place (Hebrews 9, 12) to offer himself as the sacrifice for all the peoples for all times. The pillar of fire/cloud now rests on the Heavenly Tent of Meeting where Jesus, the fulfillment of the Law, is inside.
Thus if fire, is treated in this reflection as the symbol for the Lord's Presence and will, then it leads us to the conclusion that in the Acts there is a new locus upon which the Lord's presence resides and His will is discerned. The community of disciples is the new visible locus upon which the "pillar of fire" rests. It is not surprising that the tongues of fire rested on the head of the disciples since it is the visible part of the Mystical Body whose Head is in the Heavenly Meeting Place. What is happening in the Heavenly Meeting Place is reflected in the visible world!
It is significant that Pentecost ushers in the Ordinary Times of the Liturgical Calendar. The Liturgical calendar in starting the Ordinary Time after the Pentecost bridges the continuing journey of Christians from the experience of Easter and the ordinary life. Our journey towards the fulfillment of God's Promise is fulfilled in the ordinariness of our lives. Christians who are the People of God in the New Covenant relive the journey of the Israelites with the experience of the Pentecost serving as the guiding light for the journey, seeking guidance in the discernment of the community anointed by the Spirit. The Pentecost story signals that the New People of God, as a prophetic community, is on a journey to continually reads the "signs of the time," discerning the will of God and proclaiming the Good News in their lives and in the society. The community of disciples, from the least to the greatest, united with its head Jesus, discerns and experiences the will of God (Hebrews 8, 11). It fulfills the utterance made by the Lord that He will make a New Covenant with which the Law is no longer written on tablets of stones but in the heart of the disciples (Hebrews 8, 10).