24 May 2015

Why tongues of fire?

The descent of the Holy Spirit
Sacred Heart church, North Kohala, Hawaii
The Evangelical Doctor, Saint Anthony of Padua, has left for us several sermons for the Solemnity of Pentecost. As he frequently did with most of his sermons, he composed several sermons for the day same, namely a sermon based on each of the literal, allegorical, and moral senses of the Sacred Scriptures.

He begins his allegorical sermon reflecting on the "stream of fire" that "issued and came forth from before him," that is, from before the Ancient of Days (Daniel 7:10). Saint Anthony was a master of connecting the many instances of the same or similar images throughout the Scriptures, as, in this case, he does with fire.

Please allow me now to quote his sermon at some length, though not in its entirety:
A river is an everlasting flowing of waters, which stream perpetually. This 'rive' is the grace of the Holy Spirit, which today abundantly watered the hearts of the Apostles, filling them and cleansing them. As was said: "I will pour upon you clean water, and you shall be cleansed from all your filthiness" (Ezekiel 36:25).

This river is called 'fiery.'
What else is the Holy Spirit but a divine fire? What corporeal fire does to iron, this fire does to the dirty, cold and hard heart. At the incoming of this fire, the human mind little by little loses all blackness, coldness and hardness, and wholly takes on the likeness of that by which it is inflamed. For this purpose it is given to man, for this it is breathed into him, that as far as possible he may be configured to it. For, from the burning of the divine fire, he becomes completely white-hot, and blazes forth equally, and melts into the love of God, according to these words of the Apostle: "The charity of God is poured forth in our hearts, by the Holy Ghost who is given to us" (Romans 5:5) [Richard of St. Victor, De Trinitate, VI.14].
Note that by burning, fire brings low what is high, joins together what is divided (as iron to iron), makes bright what is dark, penetrates what is hard, is always mobile, directs all its movements and force upwards and flees the earth, and moves whatever it is engendered in to its own proper orientation. These seven properties of fire can be referred to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, which
by the gift of fear, brings low what is high (that is, proud);
by the gift of piety, joins divided and separated hearts;
by the gift of knowledge, makes bright what is dark;
by the gift of fortitude, penetrates hard hearts;
by the gift of counsel, is always in motion
(for he who is counselled by his inspiration does not remain idle, but moves promptly to his own work and the salvation of others. "The grace of the Holy Spirit knows no sluggisheness or effort [Saint Ambrose of Milan, Exposition of Luke, II.19];"
by the gift of understanding, directs all its movements, etc.
(because by his inspiration he gives man to understand, that is, to inwardly read in his heart, that he may seek what is heavenly or flee what is earthly);
by the gift of wisdom, it moves the mind in which it is engendered to its own operation
(because it gives it a taste for it. Ecclesiasticus 24 says: "I perfumed my dwelling (24:21). The mind of the just, in which the Holy Spirit dwells, is redolent as a vessel or place in which something sweet-scented is placed).

The grace of the Holy Spirit is called a 'river of fire'; a river, because it extinguishes the thirst for temporal things and washes away the stains of sin; fiery, because it inflames to love and illuminates to knowledge. So today it is said to appear upon the Apostles in tongues of fire, because it made them to speak and burn. They burned with love of God, they enlightened their neighbor with a word.

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