As I look out of my office window I can see our orchard – full of the new life of spring, fresh, bright green leaves, the blossom about to come out. I see in our grounds around us the surging activity of the Holy Spirit, the source of life. Being English, my thoughts turn to the immortal words of the poet Dorothy Frances Gurney:  

Kiss of the sun for pardon.
Song of the birds for mirth.
You're closer to God's heart in a garden
Than any place on earth.  

A very English sentiment - but it goes back to the dawn of human history. Primitive peoples of every kind have believed nature to be inhabited by divinities. Pantheistic religions the world over have worshipped spirits that seem to be at work inside the natural order.  

For Christians, the Holy Spirit is indeed the Creator spirit, the source of creation’s life, including the energy of our apple trees in springtime. As we look on the creation we seeing something of the face of God and the working of the Holy Spirit.  

This beautiful garden, however, is only a threshold; a threshold to a door. The door of this threshold stands shut. In the beauties of nature there is a blockage, a point beyond which it cannot take us – we know we ought to receive more, to see more. A garden is never enough to speak to our profoundest searchings. It can’t give us forgiveness. It can’t tell us who we are to our satisfaction. For a family going through a great tragedy a garden will be of little help. Nature is just a threshold and the door at this threshold stands shut.  

That door was opened at the incarnation. Christ takes us through, he completing and fulfilling what the created order points us towards. As the Advent antiphon runs, “O key of David, you open and no one can shut. Come and bring the prisoner out of the prison house and those who sit in darkness in the shadow of death”. Christ opens the door and instrumental in this is the Holy Spirit. Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary. In that conceiving the Church itself was conceived. The Church is the Body of Christ and what it brings us is a response to all our searchings, the ability to take them forward as we grow towards becoming people blessed with fullness of life.  

There is a temptation to think of the Holy Spirit as a kind of gas which works invisibly and, as you might say, “spiritually”. Yet God the Holy Spirit makes himself known in physical realities, in the physical Body of Christ, which is us, the Church and its physical sacraments. Look on the sacraments and you see the Holy Spirit at work.  

The Church itself is the fundamental sacrament, a physical reality made up of people and their practices, guided by the Holy Spirit. The Church is a glorious bandwaggon laden with means of grace; Baptism, the Eucharist, Confession, Ordination and so on. This includes as well all the so-called sacramentals, which are in fact all of them “sacrament”. Here we see and touch and take into ourselves and are transformed by the working of the Spirit. Everything in the divine order of the Church is the face of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit.  

Let’s earth all this in something rather unlikely. Something which has been downplayed in recent years: the church building. Whenever we go into a church building, we are seeing something of the face of Christ, however as it may be through a glass dimly. The place of worship is set apart in a sacramental way. Another poet, Sir H.W. Baker – and you must forgive the lack of distinction of the poets I’m choosing – gave us the familiar words, “We love the place so God, wherein thine honour dwells”. Such a sentiment is one of the consequences of the incarnation. There are people around today who go in for hugging rocks and trees. Perhaps we Christians might start hugging church buildings. Probably not this morning but you might say to me, what if it’s a grotty building? Well, the unworthiness of a Minister cannot impair the effectiveness of the sacraments and the unworthiness of a church can’t affect its being a place set apart by the Church which is sacrament. It’s part of the working of the Holy Spirit, who is not just gas or wi-fi but concrete grace, the Holy Spirit of the incarnation.  

If I stay with this example of the church building, I have only given half the picture and we need to move straight on to the other half. The incarnation opens a door for us. That door can only open if our hearts are in the right place. So, a love of the things of the church, its people, its Scriptures, its practices and its paraphernalia such as church buildings, has to be not a human love for things but divine love and that is inseparable from love of God’s people. The Christ we see in the church building is the Christ of God’s children, the Christ who seeks justice and freedom for all people and recognition that we are all each other’s neighbour. Christ and the working of the Holy Spirit are to be found in gardens - yes - and in Church buildings and all the sacraments - yes - but never without their presence in people’s lives where there is darkness, suffering, poverty,and struggle, yearning for fullness of life. As Bishop Frank Weston famously said “you cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle if you do not pity Jesus in the slum”. The Holy Spirit drives us forward to sacrificial love and service of our neighbour. God the Holy Spirit seeks to open our eyes to see Christ in all human beings. The Holy Spirit searches us out, looking for a response to the divine call to love. Loving the things of the Church must help us to blossom in love of our neighbour. Then love of our neighbour will in turn cause our love of the Church to go deeper, so that we the Church may ever more and more be to people the face of Christ. 

Pentecost – the birth of the Church – the transformation of the apostles – the birth of the sacramental order – the launch of a people, the Body of Christ, called to live for the sake of all God’s children.  

“Holy spirit, ever living as the Church’s very life;

Holy Spirit, ever striving through her in a ceaseless strife;

Holy Spirit ever forming in the Church the mind of Christ; …

Holy Spirit ever working, setting captives sinners free; … 

You we praise and magnify.”  (New English Hymnal 141)

George Guiver Superior CR