Basketball sportscasters often describe a player who seemingly can’t miss a basket as being “on fire.” Sometimes, we say that a person is “fired up” when he or she shows passion about some topic or situation. And rambunctious toddlers often earn the title “fireball.”
Though it’s difficult to show any real etymological proof, it’s easy to imagine that phrases like these take their origins from the Biblical account of Pentecost. According to the book of Acts, Pentecost — literally “50 days” — was the day when tongues of fire descended upon Mary and the apostles, rendering them so confident and excited about Jesus that they wanted to tell the whole world about Him. It was the day they got “fired up” about the Gospel. And what better than a flame to symbolize this new burst of energy!
Pentecost — which falls on May 24 this year — has become so important in the eyes of Christians that it is known as the birthday of the Church. The Holy Spirit — though active even in Old Testament times — suddenly blazed into action with an unprecedented sign of power. It was on that day, in the upper room, when the apostles’ faint-hearted assembly — Greek ecclesia — was transformed into Ecclesia, the Church. Within hours, maybe minutes, the apostles discovered that their little band was responsible for the most ambitious marketing campaign the world has ever seen — “tell everyone about Jesus, ASAP.”
How did they know this was the plan? If it wasn’t made clear by the sudden dissipation of their fearfulness, it was immediately confirmed by the fact that the onlookers in the streets heard the apostles in their own languages. This remarkable detail, scholars believe, is a testament that the Church is both universal and missionary. That is, the Church is for everyone, but it’s up to current members to spread the message.
Consider for a moment if the apostles had not responded by spilling into the streets to tell passersby about Jesus. What if they had brushed off the gift of the Spirit like an errant firefly? Or, an equally frightening alternative, what if they ran about haphazardly telling everyone about Jesus, without rallying around Peter, “who stood up with the Eleven” and proclaimed “in a loud voice” one single Gospel message to the crowds?
These scenarios should give us pause. To receive a gift, but not use it — or to use it, but with little judgment — changes the whole world. It’s that dramatic. We too should listen to St. Peter when he says, “As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Pt. 4:10). If the Holy Spirit was able to light a fire under the apostles, it can happen to us as well!