From today’s Gospel we heard the Forerunner and Baptist John say this to his followers concerning our Lord and God and Saviour, Jesus Christ:
I indeed baptized you with water, but He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit. (Mark 1:8)
Baptism, therefore, is never simply baptism in and by water. Christian baptism is always and additionally a baptism in the Holy Spirit. Of course we receive the Holy Spirit when we chrismated within the Baptism service, but whereas we can only be baptised once, our baptism in the Holy Spirit must be continually renewed. We know, for example, that the Holy Spirit came down upon the Apostles at the Feast of Pentecost as a Divine Wind and with Tongues of Fire (Acts 2:1-3). Wind and fire both indicate energy, empowerment. To be baptised in the Holy Spirit then is to be energised, to be empowered from God Himself. This happened a number of times in Acts when the Apostles became weak and confused; in need of fresh empowerment from on high. Each time they were kindled back into life by the indwelling Holy Spirit.
“Fire,” we should note, has an additional reference here in respect of transformation. To be on fire with God is to be utterly transformed by the Holy Spirit. The analogy with created fire though is misleading and breaks down because the Holy Spirit is the Uncreated Fire of the Triune Godhead, a fire which creates something above and beyond the natural when He, that is the Holy Spirit, fills any human being.
[Father Gregory now talks to the children about being on fire with God].
Such an experience of being on fire with God is both the normal expectation and experience of Christians living out their baptism to the full. We read the following for example from the lives of the desert fathers:
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?’ then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’
Notice that at the end of the saying: “if you will.” As with all his other gifts, God does not ever do anything in our lives against our will. Love seeks out volunteers and will not command recruits. We must indeed ask for the Holy Spirit to come down and dwell within us and pursue this goal at all costs. Baptism is with fire, not just water. This dual aspect of baptism concerns both what is given: the water of cleansing forgiveness, and that which must be continually acquired, refreshed and renewed by our own spiritual labours: the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit. There is no contradiction here when St Seraphim of Sarov teaches that the whole purpose of the Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. He is referring to that part of baptism that can only be retained, developed and strengthened through our own continual repentance, humility and beseeching, each and every day of our lives. Every day we should seek that fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
If every member of the Church worldwide was thus fully baptised in the Holy Spirit, we would see a wonderful deepening in our common life in Christ. Miracles of healing, freedom from passions, holy wisdom, martyric self-giving, renewal of our communities from the local to the national and even globally are only possible when the Holy Spirit is in charge of our lives and sought out on a daily basis to guide and empower them. Let us, therefore, take the opportunity that the coming Feast of the Holy Theophany affords to renew our baptism, not only in respect of water forgiveness, but also to be kindled by the Divine Fire, to be on fire with God. Many will then be warmed back into life through an encounter with the life-creating Holy Spirit from the Father dwelling within us.