To Spread Heaven on Earth
“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…God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here am I.” Then he said, “Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:2-5).
The Holy Spirit is in our midst with an objective: to sanctify our lives. In a world choked in darkness, God’s Spirit comes down as fire. We are the torches to spread that fire, to touch and make sacred space, time, and the human heart.
Moses was an ordinary man before encountering the fire. He was wandering through the desert. It is a striking parallel to man’s world today, dry and barren. A french philosopher has said, “Man is a useless passion. It is meaningless that we live and it is meaningless that we die” (Jean-Paul Sartre). His words describe succinctly the world without God; the world behind all the commercials, smiling teeth, and raised glasses in a secular world. Life without God is a desert and we are starved by it. Then Moses saw the fire and everything changed.
“And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:1-4).
Pentecost marks a new life. The fire of God’s altar rained down into our world. Whatever was bleak and meaningless before becomes transformed when it touches this fire. It comes with wind, like the wind that hovered over the chaos in the beginning and stirred up the universe with life. It comes with light, like the lights that God first put into the skies to separate day from night. It comes with warmth, like the warmth of spring, a new season ushering in growth and beauty.
In the very name of Pentecost, we get a glimpse into what is happening. Pentecost in Greek means fifty. In biblical symbolism, the number fifty has a double meaning. It represents the fullness of time and the era beyond time. Forty-nine is the fulness of seven (seven times seven), embodying time as we know it. Forty-nine plus one expresses time beyond time, the eschatological world, life in eternity. The Kingdom of God overflows into our lives.
But what carries this fire? This is of the utmost significance.
“And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:3).
The fire of God used to burn alone on his altar. It once burned on the burning bush in the desert. With Pentecost, the fire now burns in the Church, in the sacraments, in our very hearts. We are the burning bush. Pentecost appoints us to be God’s torches, carrying his fire to the world.
“I have come to ignite a fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!" (Luke 12:49).
Jesus Christ yearned to see this fire spread. God chose us to spread it, so we had better take seriously the job given us. How do we spread the fire of Pentecost? We have to touch and make sacred space, time, and the human heart.
“Put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5).
Orthodox Christians are singularly concerned about creating sacred space.
We begin with the holy sanctuary. I hear rumors about churches where they ride rodeos, serve Starbucks, and perform rock concerts. There is no concept of sacred space. There is an obliviousness in the soul of modern man. The pagans in the Amazon or the occultists of India have more reverence than the typical American. If we cannot learn to worship here on earth in reverence and fear, what makes us think we could worship with the saints in heaven? We must discover how to kneel in awe before God’s altar, in the presence of a relic, or when we make the sign of the cross.
Our reverence for holy space begins in the sanctuary and extends to the home. We bless every Orthodox Christian home during Epiphanytide. It is our spring cleaning for driving out the devil and welcoming in God’s Spirit. We dedicate a room or a corner in our homes to prayer, with icons, candles, and prayer books — space reserved for contemplation. Even the dinning room table becomes hallowed in a Christian household. We have to protect it from the distractions of the world, televisions, and cellphones. The dinning table is holy. It is the altar of the home and the icon of the heavenly banquet. All those old fashioned manners have a purpose. They make men into men and women into women.
First the church. Second the home. Third our cities and towns. For generations, the Church has taken up banners and crosses and processed through marketplaces, around capital buildings, into the fields and farms. This is not just religious pomp. This is God the Spirit sanctifying the world. If there is any hope in our country this is it. We must create sanctuaries to nurture the flame of the Holy Spirit.
The Orthodox faith is a faith of sanctifying time.
The Jewish rabbi and philosopher, Abraham Heschel, is most famous for his teachings on the Sabbath. Living among Jews in America, he noticed how tempting it was for them to forget about the Sabbath and to look at time the way secularists look.
“Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else.”
The modern person is oblivious to sacred space. He is equally oblivious to sacred time. From morning to night, we run around accomplishing, manipulating, creating, and controlling. We grumble to set aside time for worship and contemplation. Why? We have become slaves: slaves to consumerism, slaves to productivity, slaves to the machine. Holy Time makes us free.
“Unless one learns how to relish the taste of Sabbath…one will be unable to enjoy the taste of eternity in the world to come,” Heschel writes. If we want the Holy Spirit among us, we must learn to sanctify time.
Finally, there is a throne in our heart. That throne belongs to God.
The Father of Monasticism, St. Anthony the great, encouraged the Church to constantly reach out for the Holy Spirit:
“I have received this great fiery Spirit: receive him now yourselves. If you wish to receive him that he may dwell in you, first offer hard labors of the flesh and humility of the heart. Raise your thoughts up to heaven night and day. Ask in uprightness of heart for this fiery Spirit and he will then be given you…Persist in prayer diligently, with all your heart, and he will be given you, for this Spirit dwells in upright hearts. He will reveal to you higher mysteries and other things which I cannot express in ink and paper…Celestial joy will then be your portion day and night.”
The Holy Spirit has rained down as tongues of fire. God has appointed us the torches of that fire. Through sanctifying space, time, and the heart, we remember our vocation on Pentecost Day, to spread heaven on earth.