Monday, 20 May 2013

FIRE AT WHITSUN

Note: this sermon draws extensively on T. S. Eliot’s poem ‘Little Gidding’. However, copyright permission is needed to cite the 22 lines of poetry that are integral to this sermon (I am seeking it from the publishers, Faber & Faber, who I hope, given that this is a liturgical sermon, will agree to my including them without charge). You will therefore need a copy of the poem by you to make the best sense of this address. The omissions are indicated by ellipses (…).

If you come this way…

May is a white time in T. S. Eliot’s poem from the Four Quartets, ‘Little Gidding’.  His welcome to the whiteness of spring time draws on the memory of snow and the longing for release from winter’s captivity. This leads him to reflect on the four elements, earth, air, water and fire. It is the last, fire, the primal and ultimate element that is the theme of this great poem.


It was prompted by the searing experience of the Luftwaffe raids on London whose hellish wild fires costing so much in human life and property he saw as a symbol of sin and destructiveness. But as he scans the Christian memory for other fiery associations, he begins to enlarge his understanding. There is the fire of purgation that leads to repentance and a new vision of life that purifies humanity of base corruption and its propensity to embrace evil. And there is the fire of healing and redemption, the Pentecostal fire that renews and makes it possible for life to begin again. But the human race must choose between the fire of the Holy Spirit or Dante’s inferno which the bombing of London symbolises. It is the choice between being redeemed or being destroyed. God, says the poem, invites humanity to be redeemed, consumed by the fire of love and escape the living hell through purgation by the ordeal of fire. As Eliot says in the famous fourth stanza:

The dove descending…

The story of Whitsun in the Acts of the Apostles is rich in themes. One of them is how it marks the passage of time. In one way it is the end of an epoch: the last day of the Passover season when the firstfruits of God’s harvest were gathered up and offered (in the Jewish calendar, the Feast of Weeks celebrated the first cutting of wheat). Hence the apocalyptic imagery in Peter’s Pentecost speech about the sun being darkened and the moon turned to blood, familiar language about the last days which in Joel’s prophecy are linked to the outpouring of the Spirit upon all flesh. But in another way, today marks the beginning of a new epoch. In Luke’s story, so carefully constructed around the times and seasons of the year, it is placed not at the end of his gospel, part 1, but at the beginning of his part 2, the Book of Acts. He believes that Pentecost marks the birthday of the church, the inauguration of its mission to bring salvation to the world. So the tongues of fire that hovered over the apostles symbolise the launch of the acts of the Holy Spirit, the era in which Luke lived and we his readers still live.

But with fire, you can’t separate ends from beginnings. The very destructiveness of fire is also a purgation that leads to a new start. Many of the world’s primitive creation myths begin with fire: Prometheus who stole fire from the gods is but one. Eliot’s poem speaks about beginnings and endings, and how they merge in our experience of them:
 
What we call the beginning…

And this I think is at the heart of what Pentecost should mean for us as we celebrate it today. Eliot called his poem ‘Little Gidding’. This was the place where in the 17th century a small Anglican community was founded by Nicholas Ferrar. His wish was to live with his family in simplicity, inspired by the spirituality of the Book of Common Prayer. The liturgy would be offered in the high church tradition espoused by King Charles I and the so-called Caroline divines, like our own John Cosin, Canon of Durham at this time, author of the Pentecost hymn we shall sing shortly: ‘Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire’.  The turbulent times of the English civil war seemed to Eliot to echo the London blitz and to underline how humanity’s flawed understanding of life and turning away from God leads to the relentless cycle of warfare. So this small community living a common life of Christian prayer and service symbolised how the human race needed to repair itself, to purify its vision of life if it was to survive.  This meant understanding an ambivalent, conflicted, shameful past and embracing a renewed, God-given present and future. All this will be in the name of the ‘broken King’ whose coming is our healing and whose just and gentle rule, lived out through the Holy Spirit, is our salvation and our joy.

I see the church as just such a community. Our church in the west is not grand and powerful anymore, not visibly triumphant or successful if the recent statistics on membership are anything to go by. It is small, and fragile, and declining, and vulnerable.  Yet it is not the less beautiful for that, and no less beloved. Faithful unto death, its beauty is of the Spirit whose fiery presence purges it of what is corrupt, heals its sicknesses, repairs its breaches and mends its brokenness. She animates it to become inflamed, impassioned with all the energies of God at work in our world. Its mission is what it always was in the Acts of the Apostles and throughout Christian history: to bear witness to a God whose love declares that ‘all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well’ (Eliot twice quotes Mother Julian of Norwich’s great saying in his poem.)  For then, enlightened with Cosin’s celestial fire, and in that ‘condition of complete simplicity….’, the fiery tongues will be in-folded

                                    Into the crowned knot …

Durham Cathedral, Whit Sunday 2013
Acts 2

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