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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Whitsun: reconciliation and love

On Friday, the two bishops and I were in Coventry Cathedral where we were once all canons residentiary.  We went for the celebration of the Cathedral’s Golden Jubilee. When I went there as Precentor in May 1987, my first big service was the Silver Jubilee.  So it was good to be back to mark the first 50 years of this great 20th century church building.  

When the Cathedral was built in 1962, thousands queued to get in and see it.  I was among them: my parents thought we should make the journey.  For me as a boy, driving up the newly opened M1 was the real excitement of the day.  Yet I vividly remember going into the Cathedral, taking in its light-filled space, gazing at Graham Sutherland’s tapestry of Christ in Glory and at John Piper’s kaleidoscopic baptistery window, and seeing my reflection staring up at me in the jet-black polished marble floor. I recall that I sat in the centre of the nave on my own while the crowds swirled round the periphery. I felt as though I had the Cathedral to myself.  Ever since, I’ve reckoned that large naves are the best places to sit, ponder and pray in.

Coventry is one cathedral in two buildings.  The shell of the old cathedral bombed in 1940 is as eloquent as any ruins in England.  It speaks poignantly of ‘war and the pity of war’, Wilfred Owen’s words quoted by Benjamin Britten in the War Requiem, commissioned for the Cathedral and first performed there 50 years ago this week.  But the ruins don’t only speak of sacrifice and death.  They speak powerfully of life.  At open-air eucharists in the early morning on Easter Day and Whit Sunday, it was as if the skeleton of that beautiful 15th century church reached for the sky, a striking metaphor of resurrection as if we were in some great empty tomb.  It reminded me of Ezekiel’s dry bones: arid, dead, lifeless things which the Spirit brings back to life again. 

The focus of Coventry’s ministry ever since the war has been reconciliation.  Beginning with the rebuilding of friendship with Germany, this work has spread to many places of conflict across the world.  On Friday the Archbishop of Canterbury preached about it. He began with John Cosin’s hymn ‘Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire’ which children from a local school had danced to while it was sung.  Enable with perpetual light the dullness of our blinded sight.  Reconciliation, he said, always involves seeing the other person or community in a new way. The Cathedral building helps us do this. You walk up the nave towards the image of Christ on the tapestry. Then you turn round and see the array of colour in the aisle windows that were concealed from you as you walked towards the high altar. At the west end you are aware of the Hutton glass screen with its angels and saints.  Beyond that you see the ruins, symbol of the wreckage and pain of humanity. This, he said, is how Christ on the tapestry sees the world: not as a lost and hopeless place but transfigured by God’s mercy symbolised in the coloured windows and the angels and saints on the screen. He drew attention to the diminutive figure of the human being held between Christ’s feet. From that safe place, held by Christ’s love, that figure is also looking out on the ruins, seeing it as Jesus sees it. This is you and me. If we see the world like this, reconciliation happens.

One of the meanings of Pentecost is that it promises the transformation of the whole of life, even in its darkest, most broken passages. The face of Christ has a gaze that seems to know you in a profound way, draw you upwards, put to you God’s questions, speak compellingly about grace and truth. Above him a shaft of light streams down on his head as if he were being baptised by a glow that pours over him from a window in the sky.  And right at the top is the origin of that light: a dove.  She is descending on that sunbeam towards Christ and towards us: the Holy Spirit of Christ the risen Head who animates the body of his church, the community of the baptised, the faithful of every age and the faithful of today. Us. 

The tapestry gives us an image of our reading from St John. There, the resurrection and the giving of the Spirit happen on the same Easter Day.  For John, the Spirit is the clue to Jesus’s public ministry.  At his baptism, John the Baptist quotes Jesus: ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit.’  In the temple he invites all who thirst to ‘come to me and drink… Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’ and John adds that he says this of the Spirit which believers would receive.  And at the end of gospel, the risen Christ announces peace to his disciples and confers on them the gift of the new creation: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’.  But we must not miss what comes next.  ‘If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’  He is saying that the Spirit comes into the world to do work, God’s work.  We heard last week in St Luke how Jesus begins his ministry by announcing that ‘the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me…’  For what?  ‘To bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.’  It is his calling and ours: the Spirit anoints the church so that we can continue God’s work of re-making the world, bringing justice, reconciliation and hope to all humanity. This is part of what John means by his language of forgiving and retaining sins: making real in human lives the grace and truth of Jesus and putting to the world the inescapable demand and invitation that the truth presents us with.  ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’

Let me go back to Coventry. I have a memory I cherish. In 1990 the city marked the 50th anniversary of the Luftwaffe air-raids codenamed ‘Moonlight Sonata’ when incendiaries rained down on the city and burned its heart out, destroying the cathedral with it. One day an elderly man came into the ruins, and walked slowly up the length of the nave to the stone altar in the apse, tentative as though he was not sure if he should be there.  He stood for a long time gazing at the charred cross and at the inscription on the wall behind it, ‘Father, forgive’.  And then he began to sob: not in a self-dramatizing way, but with the honesty of a child who has been confronted with some personal truth that is too overwhelming for words. The Provost embraced him and they held on to each other for some considerable time.  That man had been a Luftwaffe pilot on that terrible bombing raid of 14 November.  In 50 years he had never been able to bring himself to visit the city.  But now he wanted to come before he died, and face the truth of what he and his comrades had done so many years before, the truth of ‘war and the pity of war’.  It felt like a moment of life-changing forgiveness and reconciliation. 

On Whit Sunday, white with the brilliance of God’s light and love, we should ask ourselves if we are genuinely Pentecostal Christians.  Not that we speak with tongues, or prophesy, or understand mysteries, or give away all that we own or even have faith to move mountains. St Paul tells us that there is one first-fruit of the Spirit’s harvest that we must covet above all others. Caritas is that fruit. Love is the only thing that matters: love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, love that never ends.  It is love makes us Pentecostal as we are illuminated by the Spirit, brought back to life by the Spirit, as we join in God’s mission to bring reconciliation to his world. The dove descending on that sunbeam on the tapestry reminds me why I am here: to learn how to see in a new way, and then to act on what I see. And then I know that in the power of God’s risen Son and his life-giving Spirit, anything is possible. 

Durham, Whit Sunday 2012
(Ezekiel 36.22-28; John 20.19-23)

My book on Graham Sutherland's tapestry: A Picture of Faith: a meditation on the imagery of Christ in Glory (Kevin Mayhew, 1995)

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