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

Monday, 16 May 2016

A Large Room for Pentecost

This is my first Pentecost in retirement. Forty years ago next month, on Trinity Sunday, I was ordained priest in my college chapel here in Oxford. Balliol claims to have been founded one year before Merton in 1263, but we won’t let that get between us tonight.   Last year I retired after 12 wonderful years at Durham Cathedral as Dean. So this year it’s been necessary to learn how to inhabit a different human landscape with new rhythms, routines and opportunities. I’m having to redefine ‘work’ and ‘leisure’ and ask myself how best I can serve God in what they call the Third Age, and how to grow old gracefully. 

I’ve been haunted in this first year of superannuation by some words of the early 20th century German poet Rainer Maria Rilke.  He is speaking about ageing.  He says in one of his Letters to a Young Poet that our life is a kind of room, but as we grow older we inhabit a smaller and smaller part of that room, pacing up and down in front of the window, tracing and retracing our steps.  Ageing, he says, means contracting gracefully into a smaller space, pulling in our horizons both literally (because of our increasing physical limitations) and metaphorically (because we no longer think new thoughts and dream new dreams).  It means accepting and making friends with our own mortality.  

This could mean the depressing prospect of diminishing into nothingness.  But Rilke goes on to say: "we must accept our experience as vastly as we possibly can; everything, even the unprecedented, must be possible within it." In other words, with the inevitable contraction of our physical and mental environment should come an emotional and spiritual expansion of horizons as when we were young.  ‘I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space’ says Hamlet.  “Old men should be explorers” said Haydn in the last phase of an amazingly fertile life as great music continued to pour out of him, forever fresh and new. 

Today is the Feast of Pentecost, Whit Sunday. We are celebrating how God comes amongst us as Holy Spirit, is to be found at the heart of life as Paraclete, Holy Wisdom, Advocate, Comforter and Friend. We usually focus on Luke’s dramatic fiery story we heard from the Acts of the Apostles. But I find St John in tonight’s gospel rather closer to my own rather quieter experience of the Spirit of Truth whom the world neither knows nor sees, but who abides in us and is within us as the One who shows us the Father. 

There’s no limit to the number of ways we could picture the Spirit, so here’s one inspired by Rilke. It’s that of a large room, of space.  For I want to see Pentecost as the celebration of God-given space in which we can grow and flourish, a room generous enough for each of us and all of us collectively to discover and live out our humanity.  

Let me explain. The origins of Pentecost lie in one of Israel’s agricultural festivals, the Feast of Weeks when the first ripe grain was offered fifty days after the Passover.  So in Old Testament times, the feast was linked to the gift of a land, space to inhabit and settle and fertilise, rich, beautiful, well-watered, productive.  The land flowing with milk and honey, the land of safety and plenty and rest is a familiar image of redemption.  What is interesting about the language of ‘salvation’ in Hebrew is that it is closely related to the idea of space.  To be confined, hemmed in, imprisoned, when possibilities are closed off, is a kind of death.  Its opposite is to have room to grow and flourish and be truly alive.  

Now "Lebensraum" has its sinister shadow: most of the invasion of history have been driven by land-hunger, the competitive struggle for territory to occupy.  Yet the idea of space to live in is suggestive.  It echoes our basic human needs for shelter, warmth, sustenance and companionship, what we call ‘home’.  And the gift of the Spirit in the New Testament enlarges this image.  The story of Whit Sunday is closely linked to the mission of the church.  At Pentecost the disciples are in Jerusalem where the risen Jesus has told them to wait.  But after the rush of wind and fire, they learn that they must take the gospel out of the city’s confines.  "Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria to the uttermost parts of the earth": those are the expanding circles of the gospel’s influence that are acted out in the mission of the early church.  The Book of Acts begins in Jerusalem and ends in Rome, as if to say: there is a new geography of the Spirit here, a new way of mapping the world.  It is space for the gospel to occupy.  It is claimed by the risen Jesus in the power of his Spirit.  It is God’s.  

We could say that the Spirit’s activity is always the creation of space in which to grow.  Perhaps the paradigm is the very first story in the Bible.  In the opening verses of Genesis, the spirit or wind of God moves over the face of the waters: the Hebrew word suggests a bird hovering over her nest.  It is the beginning of a journey that will see the chaotic flood pushed back into a place from where it can no longer threaten to overwhelm the world.  With the waters’ boundaries set for ever, space is created for the dry land to appear, and an ordered, coherent universe can begin to teem with life.  In Genesis, where the Spirit of God is at work, chaos is driven back, and pattern, order, structure, life and consciousness have room to emerge.  The cosmos becomes a home.  

Our reading from St Paul sets out a vision of what this transformed life is like, animated by God’s Spirit. “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” he says; not slaves to fall back into fear but the emancipated, the free who are heirs of God himself, “more than conquerors through the One through him who loved us.”  In another of his letters Paul says: “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom”. We mustn’t collapse that glory down just to what concerns us and people like us. Paul means the destiny of all humanity, of all creation in its birth-pangs waiting for the promised new day. And this means a new way of seeing and of being, turning from all that oppresses and confines us, diminishes life and imprisons possibilities. 

So Pentecost opens up a vision of the broad, generous spaces we might inhabit as the Spirit makes a home among us.  The traditional images of the Spirit all imply space: without it fire goes out, water stops flowing, wind ceases to blow.  But as the Spirit prompts and propels us into inhabiting our salvation, occupying the space God gives us to grow in, are there any limits to what we could become in his service?  A church poised for mission in the world, like the first Christians in the Book of Acts.  Each of us transformed and renewed from within, galvanised by new reasons for living.  Our society and our world freed from all that holds it in thrall to chaos and death, and embracing the release and hope it longs for.  Rilke was right: ‘we must accept our experience as vastly as we possibly can; everything, even the unprecedented, must be possible within it.’  Pentecost is the portal. This large, generous, wonderful room is our home.  

Merton College Oxford, Whit Sunday 2016
Acts 2.1-14, Romans 8.14-17, John 14.8-17 

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