I recently had my birthday, and a friend of mine gave me as a gift two volumes, two books, of the missionary letters of St. Nikolai Velimirović. St. Nikolai Velimirović was a wonderful saint of our time. He died only in the 1950s; actually, he died here in America at St. Tikhon’s Seminary in South Canaan, PA, 1956. He was from Serbia. He was an intellectual. He had earned doctors’ degrees in European universities. He had difficulties with his church institution, but then he became a bishop. [He] was a bishop in Žiča, a bishop in Ohrid. He suffered under Nazis; he suffered under Communists. He was in Dachau prison camp. He went through all kinds of things, and he was a prolific writer. He just wrote so much. Among the famous writings of St. Nikolai Velimirović, who was recently canonized a saint, is the Prologue, a couple of volumes of meditations on the lives of the saints for each day of the year. It’s a wonderful treasure of teaching and doctrine, both theological and spiritual, ascetical, ethical, moral, cultural. He was just an incredible person, unbelievable man.
I can’t resist saying that once, when I was dean of St. Vladimir’s, the patriarch of Serbia came to the seminary and gave us as a gift an icon of St. Sava of Serbia. So Fr. Paul Lazar, the dean of students, my good friend, and I were deciding where to put this icon that the Patriarch Pavle, who recently departed this life—also a saintly man, [who] may be canonized someday himself—[had given us]. When he gave us this icon, we didn’t know where to put it, but we had in the chapel an old kind of a Western-type kind of a picture of St. Sava, kind of an icon but not in the classical iconographic form, so I mentioned to Fr. Paul, “Let’s take down the old one and put up this one that the patriarch gave us in its place.”
It was high up on the wall, and Fr. Paul is a very tall man. He got up on a chair. He reached and got the icon down, and he handed it to me. I said, “Oh, there’s something written on the back of this icon.” When we looked at it and read it, we realized it was a gift to St. Vladimir’s Seminary from Bishop Nikolai Velimirović in the early 1950s. He’s now a saint, canonized saint, and actually we had his very icon on the wall in the chapel; it’s there, right almost in the very same place next to St. Sava’s icon. So we decided quickly that we would put back up the icon that he had gifted the seminary with, that he had given as a gift to the seminary, and the icon that the patriarch gave us we put actually in the board room in our new building that was dedicated by some very pious Serbian Orthodox people.
But St. Nikolai’s a marvelous man. He wrote all kinds of writings. His letters are two volumes: very long letters. He wrote Prayers by the Lake. He wrote The Life of St. Sava. He wrote just so many things I won’t even begin to mention, but you will like to read and you will profit from reading the writings of Bp. Nikolai Velimirović, now a saint of our Church.
When I was reading this book, the first volume that was given to me—I read a couple of his letters every day, very short letters… The best way to read, I find, is to read a little bit at a time, not to gulp down the books, but to just read a page or two everyday think about it, try to put it in practice, ponder it in our heart, as it says about the Theotokos with Jesus. But I was reading the other day Letter 11 that St. Nikolai [wrote] to a laborer who asks the meaning of Christ’s words: “I have come to cast fire on the earth.” That is in the Gospel according to St. Luke: “I have come to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already burning.” It’s actually in the twelfth chapter of St. Luke’s gospel.
I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled. I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how I am constrained until it be accomplished. Do not think I have come to give peace on earth. No, I can tell you, rather, division. For henceforth in one house there will be five divided against three and two against three they will be divided, father against son, son against father, mother against daughter, daughter against her mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law, and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.
So Christ speaks about bringing a sword, bringing division, bringing fire upon the earth. So this man asks St. Nikolai what did it mean when Christ said, “I have come to cast fire upon the earth.” And I will read to you what he wrote and then meditate further upon it, particularly because this is the time of the year when we’re celebrating Pentecost Sunday, which is the final day of the Paschal season, the seven-times-seven-plus-one day, the day of the future age, that marvelous biblical festival that began as the festival of the firstfruits, and then it became the festival of the giving of the Law to Moses on Sinai, then it became the [festival] of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the disciples. And that Spirit came in the form of tongues of fire, so when we think about fire it’s worthwhile meditating on the imagery of fire in the Holy Scripture. How do we understand that fire that we use in the imagery of the Bible all the time? Let’s see how that imagery is used.
Well, St. Nikolai in his letter, this is what he wrote. I’ll just simply read it. He said, he answered this man, named Zdravko—a nice Serbian name—a laborer, a working-man, who asks, “What is the meaning of Christ’s words, ‘I came to cast fire upon the earth’?” St. Nikolai writes:
We often speak of the fire of envy, the fire of hatred, the fire of lust, the fire of every vicious passion. Of course, such fire was not brought to the earth by Christ, the King of glory and truth. Far from it! That impure, unclean fire comes from the whirlwind of the fires of hell which splashes over the whole earth. But Christ brought that holy fire with which he has been burning and glowing from eternity to eternity. That is the fire of truth and of love, a pure fire, a divine fire, from the eternal hearth which is called the Holy Trinity. It is the fire of truth out of which pours the warmth of love, the fervor of love. It is the fire by which a Christian burns but remains unconsumed, just like the burning bush in the desert that Moses beheld that burned but remained unconsumed. It is the fire which the prophet Jeremiah felt in his bones and which compellingly drove him to proclaim God’s truth.
It is the fire that came down upon the apostles in the form of fiery tongues when the Holy Spirit was sent into the world from the risen Christ. [It is] the fire which enlightened and illumined the simple fishermen and made them the greatest and wisest of men. It is the fire that shone on the face of the archdeacon Stephen at the time of his martyrdom and made his appearance like that of an angel of God. It is the spiritual fire of truth and love by which the apostles and missionaries have regenerated the world, reviving the corpse of a godless humanity; cleansing it, enlightening and illumining it. Everything in this world that has any good to it is of that heavenly fire which the Lord came to cast upon the earth.
This is the heavenly fire by which the soul is purified, just as gold is purified with earthly fire. By the light of that fire, we know the Way. We find out where we are from, and where we are going; we know our Heavenly Father, and our eternal fatherland. By that divine fire, our heart is warmed with the unspeakable love for Christ, just like the two apostles in Emmaus on the road they felt and described when they said, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he spoke to us, and he opened to us the Scriptures on the way?”
That fire moved Christ himself, to come down to earth from heaven, and it moves us to rise up from earth to heaven. We all were baptized by that holy fire according to St. John the Baptist’s words when he said, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” That fire creates an indescribable zeal for every good in one’s heart. That fire gladdens the righteous and torments the sinners. It also torments us often, until we are completely cleansed of every unrighteousness, injustice, and impurity. For it is written, “Our God is a consuming fire.” Peace and joy of the Lord be with you.
When we hear these words, we’re moved ourselves to go to the holy Scriptures and to review in the words of God, inspired in his holy people who are filled with the divine fire, what is written and what is said about this divine fire. St. Nikolai Velimirović, he of course mentions the burning bush that was not consumed, and we know that that burning bush that Moses saw that was not consumed, it stands as a symbol of everyone and everything in which God’s divine energies and his powers are living. In fact, in our Church, Orthodox Christian, ancient Christian Church, the bush that was burning and wasn’t consumed is even a liturgical title for the Virgin Mary, for the Theotokos, the mother of Christ. In fact, Fr. Bulgakov, one Russian theologian, wrote a book about the holy Theotokos, the mother of God, Mary, the mother of Christ, and he named that book Kupina Neopalimaia: “The Bush that was Burning but was Not Consumed.”
Now let’s remember the story. It’s in Exodus .
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, a priest of Midian. He led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire, out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt up.”
When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.” And he said, “Do not come near. Put off your shoes from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
It’s an amazing thing, but in France, in the modern time there was a writer named Blaise Pascal, a great Christian philosopher and logician and mathematician and a mystic. There’s a wonderful passage in his Pensées, his Thoughts, where he had himself a kind of an experience of God as fire. He wrote: “Fire, fire, all filled with fire!” And then he said, “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, the God of Moses! The living God—not the God of the philosophers. The God of the believers, the God of the faithful.” And he had that experience of God in our recent time, as fire, like Moses did in the ancient times.
Then we know, again and again in the Scripture, how that imagery is used. It’s used by Moses again when he goes up onto Mount Sinai, onto the mountaintop. This is also in Exodus.
On the third day there were thunders and lightnings, thick cloud upon the mountain, very loud blast. The people trembled. Moses and the people came out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord descended upon it in fire, and smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and God answered him in the thunder.
So we know that when Moses goes up onto the mountain that the people can’t even touch Mount Sinai, that you have the imagery of fire. Now, you can’t hear that passage in the Bible, in the old covenant Scriptures, without remembering how it’s referred to in the New Testament, in the letter to the Hebrews, and that’s the place where you actually have that passage that “our God is a consuming fire.” It’s worth hearing the whole thing. Listen how the Apostle writes in the letter to the Hebrews. This is what he writes to Christians, when Christians gather as the Church, when they come together for the Divine Liturgy, when they come together to have communion with the living God who is this consuming fire, this is what is written in the holy Scripture. It says, “You!”—and he’s writing to Christians—you Christians—you can actually say he’s writing to us. He’s saying to us:
You have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers entreat that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given: “If even a beast touches this mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”
So the writer refers to Moses going up to Sinai, or sometimes called Horeb in the holy Scripture. That’s where Moses is going to encounter God, and he trembles with fear. And it’s like a fire, and the people can’t even touch the mountain. But then we are told: “But you (Christians) have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, to the heavenly Jerusalem.” Not an earthly Jerusalem, not to some mountain somewhere, not to Zion, but to the city of the living God. And then it continues: “And to innumerable angels in festal gathering.” And then it says in the RSV: “And to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven.” Actually, the word “assembly” there is “church”: to the ecclesia of the prototokon, of the firstborn, who are enrolled in heaven.
...to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to sprinkle blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel.
Then it continues:
See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less shall we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven.
So he’s saying Christ is now warning us from heaven. He’s seated at the right hand of God; he’s in the holy of holies. And if people on earth did not escape when they heard the word of God on earth, like Moses who went onto that mountain, how much less shall we escape if we hear the Lord speaking to us out of heaven, when we’re gathered together as the Church with the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven? Then it says:
At that time, with Moses, his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised: “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth, but also the heavens.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of what is shaken, as of what has been made, in order that what cannot be shaken may remain.
When we hear those words, we think of the letter of Peter in the New Testament, who says at the end there will be this fire over the whole of creation, that there will be this conflagration of God, and that everything will be burned up, as it were, in the fire of God, and there will be a new heaven and a new earth and the old will pass away and the new will come again. This is what is written in the letter of Peter. Let’s interrupt and hear it now. This is what he says when the Lord will come—Peter:
But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years is as a day. The Lord is not slow about his promises as some count slowness, but he is forbearing toward you and toward us, not wishing that any should perish but that all should reach repentance.
So the Apostle, and through the writer is saying to us: Yes, the Lord is coming, and he’s coming quickly, but quickly for God is not quickly for us, and the full number has to be fulfilled, and thank God he hasn’t come yet, because we are still here, repenting, hoping to enter into his kingdom. But then he continues:
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it, all will be burned up. Since all those things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of the Lord, because of which the heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire! But according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which the righteousness will dwell.
So that’s Peter. Now we’re back to Paul in the letter to the Hebrews. It says:
...“once more” indicates the removal of what is shaken (as St. Peter says), and of what has been made, in order that what cannot be shaken may remain (namely, the new heaven and the new earth). Therefore (the letter to the Hebrews says to us) let us be grateful—(let us offer thanksgiving, let us be eucharistic)—for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe (the fear of God).
And then you have this phrase:
For our God is a consuming fire.
So if Moses had that fire on the mount Sinai, how much more do we have that encounter with God as a consuming fire when we come into the Church?
I can’t resist saying how, when one of our grandsons was in fourth grade or so, his teacher called his mother. The teacher called home and said to our daughter, Mary; she said, “Your son”—Benny, actually—“Your son is saying to the children in school that in your church you eat fire, that you actually partake of fire.” And the teacher was worried and called our daughter and said, “Boy, your son is telling people that in your church you consume fire; you eat fire. What is that all about? It doesn’t sound too good.” And our daughter thought and said, “Well, gee, I don’t know what he could mean. You know, we have incense, we have smoke, we have candles. We light fire in church, but I don’t know what you’re referring to.”
So when her son came home, she said to him, “Ben, what were you saying in [school] about consuming and eating fire in church?” And he said, “Mom, we do! Don’t you know that?” And she says, “What do you mean?” Well, he had learned how to read the post-Communion prayers in church, and he was reading in church how, when we have Communion, it’s like participating [in] a fire, and we partake of that fire and yet we’re not burned, like the bush that was burning and was not consumed. So it says we must be filled with awe and fear of God when we partake of holy Communion, because it’s a participation in fire. So he took those words seriously, of the prayer that he was reading in church, that we consume and partake of fire when we have holy Communion.
Of course, that makes us think about Isaiah: Isaiah in the temple, because Isaiah, very similarly to Moses, like when Moses was on the mountaintop, Isaiah was in the temple, and he writes… It’s written in Isaiah’s prophecy, sixth chapter:
I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the entire temple. Above him stood the seraphim…
By the way, the word “seraph” or “seraphim” means “fiery beings.” It means actually, in Hebrew it means “the ones who are on fire.”
...and each had six wings, and with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, with two he flew, and they called one to another, saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts! And the whole earth is full of his glory!”
And then it says:
The foundations of the threshold shook [at] the voice of him was called, and the house was filled with smoke.
So Isaiah sees this vision which is a fiery vision, of God in the clouds of the smoke, and then Isaiah says:
Woe to me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
And then it’s written:
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar, and he touched my mouth and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips. Your guilt is taken away, and your sins are forgiven.” And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us.” Then I said, “Here am I. Send me.” And he said, “Go, and say to these people: Hear and hear, but do not understand. See and see, but do not perceive.”
And then Isaiah becomes the great prophet of the coming of the Lord.
Now, in this vision of the Lord in the temple, it says that this fiery being, this seraph, the seraphim, one of them takes tongs, and he takes a burning coal, and he comes and touches Isaiah’s lips, and he says, “Behold, this has touched your lips, and your guilt is taken away and your sins are forgiven.”
And in the ancient Orthodox Church, and in the Orthodox Church until this day, those words are said when we receive holy Communion in church. In fact, the word for the spoon in our Liturgy upon which we give the holy Communion, it’s the same word that Isaiah uses here and is translated as “tongs.” I forgot what it is in Greek; it begins with L, but in any case, that word, those tongs are what is the communion spoon is called. And we say these words when that Communion touches our mouth, and this is what we know when we say those prayers in church, like our grandson Ben knew, that when you touch this, it’s a burning coal. It burns away your sin.
The holy Fathers even call that the divine fire that burns up the sins. Of course, that’s from the holy Scripture, too. But it’s important that we see that this is connected with our gathering at the Liturgy and coming into the Church and receiving the body and blood of Christ and communing with Christ himself who is casting this fire upon the earth.
And we know that in the history of the saints, the lives of the various saints, that very often, when the saints were serving Communion… For example, in the life of St. Sergius, it said those standing there saw fire come down and enter into the chalice the same way that it would come down on the offering that was offered by Elijah in the Bible. Well, Isaiah says the light of Israel will become a fire, and the Holy One is a flame, and he will burn and devour his thorns and briars, in one day he burns up the sin.
So we can think again also of Jeremiah, as St. Nicholas said, whose bones were like burning when he prophesied. And in the fifth chapter of Jeremiah, it says:
Thus says the Lord, the God of hosts: Because they have spoken this word, behold, I am making my words in your mouth a fire, and this people would and the fire shall devour them. Behold, I am bringing upon you a nation from on high, the house of Israel.
So God’s words are like a fire.
And we know also that Elijah, in the Book of Kings, we know how he himself had this contest with the Baalim, the idols’ kings, and they make their offerings and they say when the one that get consumed by fire is the one by the living God. Of course, the Baalim, the priests of the Baalim, they pray and pray and nothing happens. And Elijah even mocks them, saying, “Where is your god. Maybe he’s sleeping. Maybe he went on a journey.” He even says, “Maybe he’s going to the bathroom. Maybe he’s relieving himself somewhere.” He kind of mocks the pagan gods.
But then Elijah, to add insult to injury, pours water on his offering, and then he prays:
“Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, Israel, let it be known this day that thou art the God of Israel and I am thy servant. I have done all things at thy word. Answer me, O Lord; answer me, that this people may know, O Lord, that thou art God and that thou hast turned their hearts back.”
And then it says:
And the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, and the wood and the stone and the dust and licked up the water that was in the trenches, and all the people saw it, and they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord, Yahweh, he is God! The Lord, Yahweh, he is God!” And Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of the Baalim, and let not one of them escape.”
So we have here Elijah.
And Elijah himself is taken up into heaven. In the second Book of Kings, he’s taken up into heaven on a chariot of fire. So when he is contesting with the idolatrous priests, Elijah says, “If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty,” and the fire comes down and consumes them. And then he himself is whisked up into heaven in a chariot of fire, in a ball of fire, it says. It says:
And they still went on and talked, and behold, a chariot of fire and the horses of fire separated the two of them.
That’s Elijah and Elisha. And Elijah goes up into heaven in this chariot of fire, in a whirlwind.
And Elisha saw it and cried, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and his horsemen!” And he saw them no more.
There’s beautiful icons of this scene, of Elijah being taken up in this fiery ball of fire, and how that fire consumes the ungodly. And you have that in the New Testament, too. You have that in the letter to the Corinthians, where that imagery of fire is also used as burning up that which is ungodly. Let me read it to you. It’s from the third chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians. It says:
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master-builder I built a foundation, and another man is building upon it. Let each man take care how he builds upon it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each man’s work will become manifest, for the day of the Lord will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself perhaps may be saved, but only as through fire.
So we have this imagery of the fire throughout the whole Scriptures: the Old Testament and the New Testament; the Law, the Psalms, the Prophets; Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah. It’s there everywhere. Ezekiel—we should mention Ezekiel also. Ezekiel has his vision of the wheels. St. Macarius of Egypt, the Great, has a wonderful interpretation of Ezekiel’s vision of the wheels: the wheel in the wheel in the chariot. We read it during Holy Week in our Orthodox Church. He says that that chariot of wheels is the throne upon which God sits, the Ancient of Days, as in Daniel. And then the Son of Man, Christ himself, bears it up with his hand; he holds it with his hands. And then God is enthroned upon it, and Christ is enthroned upon it also. And you have these four beasts—the man, the lion, the eagle, the ox—imaging all of creation—holding God up. But then you have the imagery of fire again.
In the midst of the living creatures, there was something that looked like burning coals of fire, like torches moving to and fro among the living creatures; and the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning. And the living creatures darted to and fro like flashes of lightning.
So you have Isaiah seeing this likeness of the Kabod of Yahweh, the glory of the Lord. It’s like a burning fire, and Elijah himself is taken up into that fire, and he becomes a fiery prophet, like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and he preaches the word of God to the people.
So this is the fire that God himself is. God the consuming fire. This is the fire that Christ came to cast upon the earth. This is the fire that the Holy Spirit comes upon the apostles in the form of fiery tongues. This is the fire into which we are all baptized, when we’re baptized into Christ, not simply a baptism by water into repentance, but a baptism of the Holy Spirit and with fire. And this is the fiery Christian faith into which we ourselves are living.
Now, as I mentioned, you find this imagery through all the Christian history and all of the saints. St. Sergius of Radonezh I mentioned. They saw this flame when he was celebrating this Liturgy. It was seen in other times, and the glory of the Lord. Sometimes its flame was even seen upon priests that were sinful. The glory of the Lord was upon priests that were sinful, not simply those who were holy, because that fire is given objectively into the Church in the holy sacraments. Sometimes the people say if we’re sinful then the fire of God is not there, but that’s not true. Even though we’re sinners, even though we have unclean lips, even though we have to be going to Liturgy upon Liturgy and Communion upon Communion to have our mouths cleansed with that burning flame of the burning coal of Communion, still that fire of God is there.
There’s a wonderful story in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. It’s only one saying, attributed to a man called Mark the Egyptian—not Macarius, but Mark. And I’ll read it to you, because it makes this point very strikingly. This is how the story goes. It’s a little bit long, but I’ll read it. It’s one of the longer sayings of the Desert Fathers. Usually the sayings are very short; this one’s a little bit longer.
It was said of Abba Mark the Egyptian that he lived for 30 years without going out of his cell. The priest used to take holy Communion to him, but the devil, seeing the remarkable endurance of this holy old man, decided to test him and to tempt him by making him judge and blame the priest. So the devil brought it about that a demoniac went to the old man under the pretext of asking for prayers. Before anything was said, the possessed man of the devil cried out to the old man, Abba Mark, “Your priest stinks of sin! Do not let him come near you any more.”
But Mark, filled with the Spirit of God, said to him, “My son, everyone rids himself of impurity, but you bring it. It is written: Judge not, so that you may not be judged. However, if he is a sinner, the Lord will save him, for it is written: Pray for one another, that you may be healed.” When he had said this and when he had prayed, he drove the devil out of the man and sent him away healed.
Now when the priest came, according to his custom, to give the holy Communion to the old man, the old man received him with joy. Seeing the absence of malice in the old man, the good God showed him a marvel. When the priest prepared himself to stand before the holy table, this is what the old man related: “I saw the angel of the Lord descend from heaven and place his hand on the priest’s head, and he became like a pillar of fire. And I was filled with wonder at this sight, and I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Man, why are you astonished at this? In truth, if an earthly king does not allow his nobles to stand in his presence in soiled garments but only arrayed in his royal glory, how much more will the divine power of God himself purify the servants of the holy mysteries (that means the sacraments of holy Communion) who stand before the heavenly glory?’ ”
And the noble athlete of Christ, Mark the Egyptian, became great and was judged worthy of his grace, because he had not judged the priest as a sinner.
So that glory of God can be borne by sinners even, because that’s God’s grace; it’s God’s will. But we know, of course, that the holy people, they really do become a consuming fire themselves. And this is the Christian teaching. We either are burned up by the fire of God in an everlasting Gehenna, or that fire of God burns us and we become fire like a consuming fire of God himself. So, for example, you have in the Desert Fathers these sayings of Abba Joseph.
Abba Joseph said to Abba Lot, “You cannot be a monk unless you become like a consuming fire.”
And then he added:
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba (that means Father), as far as I can say, I do my little office, I read my psalms, I fast a little bit, I pray and I meditate, I live in peace with others as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. Tell me, Father, what else, what more can I do?” Then the old man, Father Joseph, stood up, stretched out his hands toward heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire, and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”
“If you will, you can become all flame.” So we can say our prayer, we can meditate, we can fast a little, we can try to live at peace with others, but what we’re really called to is to become all flame, to become a consuming fire together with the consuming fire that is God himself.
In the Desert Fathers, one of the brothers saw Abba Arsenius as a total flame. It’s the saying number 27 of the Sayings of Arsenius. This is what is written.
A brother came to the cell of Abba Arsenius in Sketis. Waiting outside the door, he saw the old man entirely like a flame. The brother was worthy of this sight, but when he knocked, the old man came out and saw the brother marveling, and he said to him, “Have you been knocking very long? Did you see anything here?” The other answered, “No.” So then he talked with him and sent him away.
The man answered, “No,” because he did not want to, in a sense, let Arsenius know that he was counted worthy of seeing him filled—not filled with the fire of God, but becoming himself entirely a flame.
And you have the same thing in the Amma, the holy Mother of the Desert, Syncletica. Syncletica was one of the three women who was listed in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. There’s Syncletica, there’s Sarah, and there’s Theodora. Now, this is what Amma—“amma” means “mother”; “abba” means “father”—this is what Amma Syncletica said. She said:
In the beginning, there are a great many battles and a good deal of suffering for those who are advancing toward God, but afterwards there is ineffable joy.
Then she says:
It is like those who wish to light a fire. At first they are choked by the smoke, and they cry. Tears come to their eyes.
They have to cry. You have to begin by crying.
And by this means they obtain what they seek, because it is written: Our God is a consuming fire.
Then she adds:
So we also must kindle a divine fire in ourselves through tears and hard labor.
So our hard labor, our ascetical life, it’s kindling the fire, burning the fire. And as the saints teach us, when you start to make a fire, it smokes at first. It doesn’t get started very well, and then your eyes tear and you have to cry, but you keep trying to light that fire, and then the grace of God, God himself sees our labor, and then he sends his own fire down upon us; he gives us the grace of the Holy Spirit, and then in the end comes the ineffable joy and the peace and the rest and the dispassion of fire.
One holy Father, Diadochos of Photiki in the Philokalia, he spoke about the dispassion that we reach, the apatheia, the hesychia, the silence, as a fire: the fire of dispassion. And St. John Climacus says: We fight the fire of evil, the fire of sin, with the fire of God. We fight fire with fire, and then that fire of God destroys and consumes and burns up the fire of evil that is in us.
So our God is a consuming fire, and we also are called to be deified, to become ourselves a consuming fire. And ultimately we either become all fire ourselves in the coming kingdom of God, or that fire of God burns us forever in the torment of everlasting Gehenna. Some of the folks think—some of the Fathers even—that the fire may not last forever. Maybe the fire of God ultimately destroys the fire of the evil one, but according to Scripture, there is that unending fire of Gehenna for those who resist the fire of God. And if we resist becoming fire, then that fire consumes and destroys us. It burns us forever.
But if we say yes to that fire, if we say we want that fire, if we labor to receive that fire, if we say our prayer, do those deeds, and so on—then God will see that, and we’ll even know, as St. Theophan the Recluse says, that even our labors are inspired by the fire of God. The zeal, the resolve that we have in us is a result of the divine fire quietly burning within us. But then it ends up to be a conflagration, and then we can say of God: Fire, fire! The God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, the whole Prophets, the fire of our Lord Jesus Christ, the consuming fire of God! We can know that fire and become that fire ourselves. It’s amazing. It’s marvelous. It’s wonderful. We can’t even imagine it—and yet this is our faith.
Our God is a consuming fire, and Christ comes on earth in order to give that very fire to us, the fire of God’s own Holy Spirit in fiery tongues so that we ourselves could be by grace and by faith everything that our God is—and our God is a consuming fire.