Christopher Smith considers the Holy Spirit
I have something of a love-hate relationship with the Today programme which fills the Radio 4 schedule on weekday mornings. It is a convenient way to ingest the news at the beginning of the day, and they frequently conduct interviews with important politicians who need to be held to account by journalists on our behalf. But, my word, it can be annoying sometimes. It maybe the politicians who are irritating, as they spout forth phrases like To be clear, we have been very clear..,’ as I heard recently, and I have a hunch that whenever a politician says he’s being clear, he is in fact obfuscating. But it is not always the politicians who give me blood pressure problems. I was nearly sent into orbit by an article just before the half term break about Whitsun. Why, asked the presenter, was there this bank holiday coming up that some people insist on continuing to call ‘Whitsun’? What on earth was ‘Whitsun’?
It took two pundits to enlighten us, one being a journalist who happened to live in the countryside, the other being some lecturer in cultural hogwash from the university of I- can’t-remember-where. He was kind enough to tell us that Whitsun was originally something to do with the Church, but that it had become a general time for peasant jollification in the English countryside, where they had Whit fairs and did lots of Morris dancing. The journalist who lived in the countryside responded irascibly that she hadn’t noticed any decline in the amount of general Morris dancing and cheese rolling on offer in the countryside since Whit Monday became ‘late Spring bank holiday’.
And the reason for my irritation was that there was no attempt to define what Whitsun actually is: the word ‘Pentecost was not used once, and there was only a passing reference to the fact that it is a feast which moves because it is tied to the date of Easter. Still less was there any attempt to explain the theological point of the feast of Pentecost, and, shockingly, the Holy Spirit got no mention at all. That’s the way it is now, evidently. Not even the BBC’s flagship radio news programme knows anything about Pentecost.
I mention this partly to share my irritation, but more importantly to make the point that we are now painting on a prettyblank canvas. It is frustrating that the general population know less and less about the Christian Faith, but at least they come without some of the preconceptions and half-truths of previous generations. What they learn about Christianity will be what we tell them.
So what will we tell them about Pentecost? What do they need to know about the Holy Spirit? Where are we going to start our explanation?
Well, why not start with our own experience? Start with confirmation. Part of what we hope the Holy Spirit will do for us when we receive him at confirmation is to equip us for mission, and to help us to encourage others on their Christian journey. For the Jews, Pentecost, the Feast of Weeks, was (and is) the fiftieth day from Passover, and, as Passover was associated with the escape from Egypt, so Pentecost was associated with the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. But for us, the Feast is infinitely more dynamic: the gift of life in the Spirit.
Sprit is, after all, really about breath, and therefore about life. So we sometimes use the word respiration for breathing, and we use the word inspiration for that moment of creative activity, or the giving of confidence or encouragement. All these things, we believe, are part of the creative work of the Holy Spirit, who gives life to God’s people. And breath and breathing have a parallel in that Anglo-Saxon word `wind; air in motion. You do not see the wind, but you see its effects, as it moves through the trees, or whistles around your house. The Wind blows where it will, says Jesus of the Holy Spirit. And so the Holy Spirit is known by his effects. It should always be in our minds as we seek to live the Christian life: does it show that we are filled with the Spirit? St Basil has another image of the Holy Spirit as light: He is the light which cannot be seen except upon the object that is lit up’. Like the wind, you cannot see the light, only what it lights up.
Do we, empowered by the Spirit, shed light on the Christian faith for those who cannot yet see?
I wonder whether we might learn something from our eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters, who are very good at putting the whole of their theology in the context of the Holy Spirit. I have recently learned about a Eucharistic custom of theirs which rather appeals to me. Did you know that, just before communion, an Orthodox priest will put into the chalice some freshly boiled water? We mix the chalice before the Eucharistic prayer, but they do it when the chalice has been consecrated, when it contains the Blood of Christ, using hot water, added with the words, the fervour of faith, filled with the Holy Spirit’. They call it the `zeon,’ which is the word for ‘boiling; and so for “fervour,’ and it gives us the word ‘zest: The contents of the chalice are made warm by it, so that you can taste the presence of the Holy Spirit as well as that of the Lord. So let us also remember that whenever we are at mass, we are not only nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ, but also filled afresh by the Holy Spirit, the fervour of faith. Maybe it would be no bad thing for us to try to be a little more zesty as we are sent out into the world to do the work of God!