Spirituality for Today – February 2011 – Volume 15, Issue 7

Holy Spirit and Fire

By Rev. Raymond Petrucci

In its circuitous journey from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea, the Jordan River makes a significant jog near the city of Jericho. The large loop in the river is called, by the locals, Al-Maghtas. Since antiquity, this spot has been considered the location where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. The Scripture narrative is replete with meaning. Here, John declares Jesus to be "the Lamb of God." He says that it is Jesus who should be baptizing him and not the other way around. The Father proclaims Jesus to be his Son, blesses his mission as the Christ, and calls all people to listen to him. The old baptism of repentance now fades away. Stepping through the reed-dotted shallows to the verdant shore, Jesus begins his task on earth and he would change baptism to be one filled, in the words of John, "with the Holy Spirit and with fire."

A photo of a bright orange fire

The action of receiving a baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire conveys not only a divine gift, but also a human responsibility. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit demands that an individual must live as a God-bearer. One's character reaches its full definition in welcoming, as a person of free will, the constant influence of the Holy Spirit. Fire is a forceful energy that warms and lights, protects and purifies; it also destroys and humbles. The fire is linked to the baptized person's identity as a Christian and as a participator in the on-going mission of spreading the faith. The zeal of the believer is not that of an ideologue but of one who must share with the world the compassion and the love of God. Yet, it is difficult for the Spirit and fire to work through such "earthen vessels." The call of the baptized is not to settle for a person simply linked in faith to Christ, but to be committed to move and live in a Christ-like manner.

There is a story told by a missionary priest in Biafra that provides a poignant illustration of the relevance of being Christ-like. He spoke of a young girl who appeared at his mission one morning. She bore the appearance and expression of a victim of the violence, poverty, and sickness prevalent in that war-torn nation. She received food and clothing from the stores of the mission. She thanked God for the priest's munificence. He asked her if she believed in Christ. And then, as the priest related it, "She then came over and stood directly in front of me and said, 'Father, you are asking me whether I believe in Jesus Christ. For me, today, you are Jesus Christ.'... Her words, 'Today, for me, you are Jesus Christ', were straight from the Holy Spirit. Her description of what it means to be a priest was such a graced-filled moment and made such an impression on me that I have never forgotten it. Her words have been a kind of theological shorthand reminding me of my priestly identity." [I Will Come Myself, Expriencing the Risen Christ. Father Kevin Scallon CM]

All persons bearing the name of Christian have been presented in one way or another with opportunities to be Christ and, thus, reminded of their identity. One must linger on the word – identity. The use of one's talents, personality, education, and all the factors that make up a person in cooperation with the presence of the Holy Spirit and that unique "fire" constructs an "identity" that would please both John the Baptist and the Creator Himself. There is no shortage of the grim and tragic happenings in this world that find their authorship in human behavior. In contrast, evidence of goodness and kindness in human nature also expresses itself. The nightly news often reports a story of one person's inhumanity that typically is remedied by another's courageously humane act. Many centuries ago, Alexander Pope certainly was correct in exposing the complex enigma that is man. It must never be forgotten, however, that the power, the capacity, and the insight of the human being under the truth of the Spirit - thestrength of that fire can produce still the highest and noblest of human acts.

Indifference to the presence and the will of God in the course of life devalues everything. Robbed from the quality of life is that which is most gracious, most tender, and, indeed, most fulfilling. Once, the poet Maya Angelou clearly and forcefully underscored this issue: "Of all the needs (there are none imaginary) a lonely child has, the one that must be satisfied, if there is going to be hope and a hope of wholeness, is the unshaken need for an unshakable God."

From the waters of the Jordan River to the waters of countless baptismal fonts today, the affirmations of faith bring hope to the world. The "I do" to the truths of the creed opens the soul of the one who is to receive the great sacrament to welcome the Holy Spirit and to light the blazing fire of Christian faith, hope , and love. With the dawning of each day, the need appears, the challenge beckons, and the answer must come. In one's sacred baptism, the Christian mandate stands. In ways too numerous to count, the fear and sorrow ravaging a poor soul can be expunged by the care of one filled with the Holy Spirit and with fire - "For me, today, you are Jesus Christ."