Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson, Dean

“If it quacks like a duck, it must be a duck!” Well, that’s not actually a good enough reason for saying definitively it is a duck. But it’s a good starting point, along with the Leunig’s delightful cartoon and few words on the front of today’s service booklet.

Today’s great festival of Pentecost invites us into the mystery of the Holy Spirit. I say ‘mystery’ because, in many ways, despite the best efforts of generations of theologians, and even the writers of the Gospels and the Bible as a whole, there seems to be no single satisfactory answer to what or who the Holy Spirit is. Ghost, comforter, giver of life, dove, energiser, breath of God, fire, wind – these are just a few of the many different ways of describing the Spirit in the Bible. As for gender – well, anyone’s guess really!

Today I offer you what some of our hymn writers have made of the Holy Spirit – and we have some wonderful Pentecost hymns, some of which we sing today. (Somewhat strangely, we are not singing any of the obvious and really well known “Spirit” hymns tonight.) Not surprisingly, given Jesus’s instructions to his disciples to wait until the Holy Spirit came upon them, many of the Pentecost hymns either begin with the word “Come” or carry the sentiment of invitation to the Holy Spirit to come into the lives of the faithful. “Come down, O Love divine, seek thou this soul of mine”, “Come, gracious Spirit, heavenly Dove, with light and comfort from above”, “Come, Holy Spirit, come! Inflame our souls with love”, and “Come, thou Holy Spirit come, and from thy celestial home shed a ray of light divine” being just a few. Generations of priests have been ordained to that great Pentecost hymn, sung to a plainsong melody, “Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire, and lighten with celestial fire.”

Other hymns focus on the gifts and the fruits of the Spirit – as outlined by St Paul in his epistles. So we read in the hymn beginning “Eternal Ruler of the ceaseless round” the prayer that “we would be one in hatred of all wrong, one in our love of all things sweet and fair, one with the joy that breaketh into song, one with the grief that trembles into prayer…” I particularly like the idea of “grief trembling into prayer”. (And as an aside, I often find myself, as I know our welcomers do, encouraging people to light a candle when they want to pray, but don’t know what to say.) The hymn “Gracious Spirit, Holy Ghost”, based on 1 Corinthians 13, reminds us that it is the Spirit who gives that greatest of all gifts, love. “Faith and hope and love we see joining hand in hand agree; but the greatest of the three, and the best, is love.”

A relatively new hymn in our hymn book (Common Praise) is one written by Carl Daw. To a simple unison, and very singable, melody we read, “Like the murmur of the dove’s song, like the challenge of her flight, like the vigour of the wind’s rush, like the new flame’s eager might: Come, Holy Spirit, come.” Perhaps not unexpectedly, this hymn echoes sentiments found in some of the much older hymns, including one from the 8th century where we read, “Descend, O heavenly Dove, abide with us always; and in the fullness of thy love cleanse us, we pray.”

Some Holy Spirit hymns are so closely associated with particular tunes it is difficult to think of them being sung to anything else. “O thou who camest from above the fire celestial to impart, kindle a flame of sacred love on the mean altar of my heart” can surely only be sung to “Hereford”. I love the 2nd verse, “There let it for thy glory burn with inextinguishable blaze, and trembling to its source return in humble prayer and fervent praise.” I can’t really imagine singing “Come down, O love divine” to anything other than Down Ampney, even if the hymnbook offers an alternate tune.

I count myself fortunate in having spent a good number of my student and early ministry years at a time when the focus was very much on the Holy Spirit during the great Charismatic Renewal movement that swept through the Anglican, Roman Catholic and other normally fairly ‘staid’ churches in the 1970s and early ‘80s. It was a time of huge excitement, incredible deepening of faith and an upsurge in vocations to the ordained ministry, particularly among older people – people in their thirties and forties who already had established careers, as opposed to young people like myself in their early twenties. Many made very big sacrifices for God, and went on to become leaders in the church.

This movement of renewal brought with it its own new songs and hymns; some of them simple and repetitive, not unlike some of the Taizé music which we sing here once a month on Saturday evenings. “Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me, break me, melt me, mould me, fill me; Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.” David Evans, born a year or two after me, wrote the words and music for one that has found its way into more conventional hymn books. “Be still, for the Spirit of the Lord, the Holy One, is here. Come, bow before him now, with reverence and fear. In him no sin is found, we stand on holy ground. Be still, for the Spirit of the Lord, the Holy One, is here.”

As one would expect with this enigmatic third person of the Holy Trinity poetry plays a large part in describing the Holy Spirit. No more so than in Bishop Stewart Cross’s magnificent Trinity hymn, sung to Abbot’s Leigh, “Father, Lord of all creation”. Listen to the opening lines of the third verse. “Holy Spirit, rushing, burning wind and flame of Pentecost, fire our hearts afresh with yearning to regain what we have lost.”

I will leave it to you to work out your favourite and most meaningful Pentecost and Holy Spirit hymns, and perhaps even write your own. Who knows, perhaps next year we may have a crop of hymns for Pentecost written by members of St Peter’s Cathedral. But let me offer you, by way of finishing today, a poem by James K Baxter, entitled “Song to the Holy Spirit”.

Song to the Holy Spirit

Lord, Holy Spirit,
You blow like the wind in a thousand paddocks,
Inside and outside the fences,
You blow where you wish to blow.

Lord, Holy Spirit,
You are the sun who shines on the little plant,
You warm him gently, you give him life,
You raise him up to become a tree with many leaves.

Lord, Holy Spirit,
You are the mother eagle with her young,
Holding them in peace under your feathers.
On the highest mountain you have built your nest,
Above the valley, above the storms of the world,
Where no hunter ever comes.

Lord, Holy Spirit,
You are the bright cloud in whom we hide,
In whom we know already that the battle has been won.
You bring us to our Brother Jesus
To rest our heads upon his shoulder.

Lord, Holy Spirit,
You are the kind fire who does not cease to burn,
Consuming us with flames of love and peace,
Driving us out like sparks to set the world on fire.

Lord, Holy Spirit,
In the love of friends you are building a new house,
Heaven is with us when you are with us.
You are singing your songs in the hearts of the poor
Guide us, wound us, heal us. Bring us to the Father.

James K Baxter