Fire symbolizes purification in both Old and New Testament

in the beginning
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire!

And Sunday’s first reading — Is 6:1-2a, 3-8 — is on fire. We see the smoke in Verse  4: “At the sound of that cry, the frame of the door shook and the house was filled with smoke.”

The house in question is the Temple in Jerusalem, the house of God. Isaiah is standing there, beholding a vision of God seated on a throne. God is calling Isaiah to be a prophet.

The smoke filling the Temple comes from the sacrifices burning on the altars of the Temple. The sacrifice of animals comes to mind: oxen, lambs and turtledoves.

Besides those, cereal offerings and offerings of incense were burnt every day on the Temple altars. That would produce a lot of smoke.

Through the haze of smoke, Isaiah notices seraphim flying overhead. The seraphim are angels, but a particular kind. Literally, the word “seraphim” means “burning ones.” Everyone is on fire in this vision.

Isaiah sees one of the seraphim flying down to him. He holds a burning ember that he has taken with tongs from the altar and applies it to Isaiah’s mouth.

God wishes to purify Isaiah, to remove his objection that he is unworthy to serve as God’s prophet: “See, now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged.”

The fire represents the Holy Spirit. It is the same fire that burned in the bush that Moses encountered when he was called by God to lead the Hebrew people: “The bush, though on fire, was not consumed” (Ex 3:2).

Similarly, in their journey to the Promised Land, a column of fire led the Hebrew people during the night. It was the Holy Spirit leading them.

And later on, in the New Testament, the Holy Spirit descends upon the disciples on the day of Pentecost in the form of tongues of fire: “Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:3-4).

In all these cases, the Holy Spirit burns, but does not destroy. The Holy Spirit burns away impurities in order to prepare us to serve God.

That was true for Isaiah. It holds true for us as well. That process of purification will involve some pain, but it will make us more suitable instruments of God’s will.

Then, we will be able to say: “You tested us, O God, tried us as silver tried by fire” (Ps 66:10).

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