Whitsun Evensong

St Margaret’s, Binsey

Evensong on Sunday 19th May  2013 [Whit Sunday]

Revd. Professor  Martin Henig

Exodus 33:7-20; 2 Corinthians 3:4-18; Psalm 33:1-12


And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord, as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. [2 Cor.3:18]


+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.


 Today we ponder the relationship between God and his Creation, not just us as human beings, but with Creation as a whole. This morning, at St Frideswide’s we meditated on the all encompassing vision presented in Psalm 104, with its insistence that the whole of Creation belongs to God and reflects his glory. Now I will briefly explore the way in which divinity, God, can inhabit us just as he was believed to inhabit the ancient Temple. We speak of churches like this one as sacred space, but can we, and can other creatures become sacred, partake of the divine in the same way?


  Certainly St Paul was living at a period, in the Roman Empire, during which  gods and goddesses were frequently seen as inhabiting their images, and in men’s minds the distinction between a statue of  a deity and the actual god was often rather indistinct. This can be dismissed, no doubt, as mere idolatry but something similar happens when we gaze on, and venerate a holy image or an icon even today. Such a painting or statuette is of course not itself Christ, the Blessed Virgin or a Saint but a window or a conduit to the living reality.  As St Paul said in his first letter to the Corinthians:


Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face.[1]


He employs the same image of partial seeing. Nevertheless the effect of the divine on us is striking. The face of Moses was said to glow after he met God, and so he kept it veiled from the sight of his compatriots. Now, Paul says, the enlightenment occasioned by the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost means that our entire faces glow in the same manner, and that enlightenment brought about by the knowledge and love of Christ is available to all, and there is no need of a veil.


  Certainly a knowledge of the Christian story helps in unlocking our heart to love, thereby releasing our imagination to contemplate God. Barriers of upbringing and language fall apart when we are seized by the same love. We all have precious childhood memories, perhaps observing a school of fish fry in the shallows of the Thames, marvelling at the intricate construction of a tiny flower or the effect of sunlight filtering through new leaves. I remember being overcome by the singing of a blackbird and phoning a friend to tell him about it, and, of course, poets have so often expressed the same feeling of awe for nature in odes and sonnets and longer works – Keats, Hopkins, Dylan Thomas and many others have unlocked doors to the divine through their potent imaginations.


   For Christians, the third person in the Trinity has sometimes been the hardest to understand. I remember hearing the tale of a would-be native American convert who told the missionary. : ‘God the Father, I like; Jesus, I like…but holy pigeon, I do not like!’ How many of us have had these thoughts?  Jesus’ own relationship with the Father was intense but inevitably there was an element linking them composed of empathy, love, and imaginative insight. On his Ascension Jesus tells his followers to wait, as it were symbolically, for Pentecost when the connection with the Noachic covenant would be clear to all those Jews from diverse lands, gathered together in Jerusalem. But dramatic as the image we get of flames of fire, as though of sudden revelation, and speaking with tongues, leading to the charismatic commotion which would normally be associated with a rather good party, although it was only  9 a.m. in the morning ~not so unusual on a summer morning in Oxford perhaps~ the Holy Spirit had in fact been present the whole time. It is the very life force which, after all, in Dante’s Paradiso, ‘moves the sun and the other stars’. It is surely the same imaginative empathy which had moved saints, philosophers, artists and writers from long before that fateful day in 1st century Jerusalem.


  But it would be a mistake to see the Holy Spirit, whether envisioned as a flame or a dove, as entirely concerned with the human animal. We do now have a very good idea of the emotional lives of some animals,[2] and  if  we believe that all life originated in God, then they too are children of the Holy Spirit, so the birdsong, the happiness of other living creatures, observable  when we obey the instincts of our hearts and allow them to live in peace, renders them sacred. What is the harmony of Eden in Genesis, or the image of paradise restored, as in Isaiah, or the vision of the new Jerusalem in Revelation other than the return to a world where God rules through the ministration of the Holy Spirit?


   It is worth asking at every season, what difference the particular festival makes for us. Thus, for example, at Christmas what difference does it make that God has become incarnate? It is surely more about seeing the divine hand in all life than depriving a poor unfortunate, factory-farmed turkey of its life. What does Easter mean to us: surely the Resurrection places our hopes far beyond any measure of worldly triumph. It is the pure, unalloyed victory of love. And now at Pentecost our imaginations are freed to live for ever in God’s world in harmony with all that he has made, in company with all those true saints who have seen the hand of God in all his creatures. As St Francis wrote in his famous Canticle of the Creatures:


  Let all things their Creator bless,

 And worship him in humbleness,

    O praise him, Alleluya!

Praise, praise the Father, praise the Son,

  And praise the Spirit, three in One:

O praise him, O praise him,

Alleluya, Alleluya, Alleluya!



+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.


[1] 1 Cor 13:12

[2]  Jonathan Balcombe, Second Nature. The inner lives of animals (New York 2010)