Catching fire

As Luke records in Acts 2, ten days after Jesus ascended to heaven, during the feast of Shavuot, the Holy Spirit manifested as “tongues of fire” and descended on Jesus’s apostles, filling them with power before the multitudes that had gathered. Peter preaches this as a fulfillment of the prophet Joel: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams . . .” (Acts 2:17; cf. Joel 2:28).

As geographically and linguistically diverse pilgrims embraced the good news of Christ that day and carried it back to their homes, God’s Spirit spread throughout the ancient Near East and from there to other parts of the world, such that Christianity is the most global and multicultural religion. The fire that fell that one Sunday in Jerusalem has spread exponentially! First it caught the Twelve, and then some three thousand witnesses, and it’s been burning ever since.

Consider this untitled poem by Theodore Roszak*:

Unless the eye catch fire
The God will not be seen
Unless the ear catch fire
The God will not be heard
Unless the tongue catch fire
The God will not be named
Unless the heart catch fire
The God will not be loved
Unless the mind catch fire
The God will not be known

In it the physical senses are ignited, as are the emotions and the intellect. The whole person—body, spirit, and soul—is set on fire. Sounds Pentecostal, no? With echoes of Moses’s meeting God in a burning bush on Mount Horeb (Exod. 2), as revelation is key.

Slowly read each of the five couplets, one at a time, considering how God makes himself known through that faculty. Ponder what it means for the eye to “catch fire,” the ear to catch fire, and so on. What does that image evoke?

Sahi, Jyoti_Holding the Flame of Fire
Jyoti Sahi (Indian, 1944–), Holding the Flame of Fire, 2005. Oil on canvas, 36 × 36 in. Painted as a design for a stained glass window for the entrance of Paripurnata Halfway Home in Kolkata, India.

Fire shows up a lot in the work of Indian Christian artist Jyoti Sahi, as in his painting Holding the Flame of Fire, which shows a pair of hands cradling a flame that fans out in bright oranges and yellows, forming a mandala (Sanskrit “circle”). Perhaps you see licking tongues, or dove’s wings, or I AM calling out from a blazing shrub.

This painting was inspired by aarti, a ritual expression of love and gratitude to a deity that originated and is widely practiced in Hinduism but that has been adapted by some Christians in South India. (Sahi demonstrated it to me in a Christian chapel in Bengaluru when I visited him a few years ago.) A lit oil or ghee lamp is placed on a tray, Sahi explains, “where different offerings are arranged representing the senses, such as flowers related to sight, incense sticks in relation to smell, water and fruit in a bowl in relation to taste, and earth and ash in relation to touch.” The priest or householder waves the tray in a clockwise motion, then brings it around from person to person, each of whom cups the flame with their hands and then touches their forehead, seeking divine blessing. Aarti is often accompanied by singing and can be performed at home or in public places of worship.

(Related post: https://artandtheology.org/2020/11/30/advent-day-2-fire/)

How awesome is it that the Spirit of God, the living flame, moves among us—even abides within us! The Spirit stirs, illuminates, regenerates, sanctifies, guides, comforts, intercedes, and empowers. What a gift.

* Note on authorship: This poem appears in Where the Wasteland Ends: Politics and Transcendence in Postindustrial Society by Theodore Roszak (Doubleday, 1972) as the epigraph to chapter 9, “Mind on Fire: Notes on Three Old Poets.” While Roszak provides attributions for all the other epigraphs in the book, he does not for this one, leading me to believe that the verse either originated with him or is from an unknown source. It is often misattributed to William Blake—probably because Roszak’s chapter focuses on Blake, in addition to Wordsworth and Goethe—but I confirmed with multiple Blake scholars that these lines are not Blake’s. P. K. Page wrote a short story in 1979 titled “Unless the Eye Catch Fire,” citing Roszak as the title’s source.

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