Sub Dean - Revd Canon Michael Rawson
The hill top Italian city of Orvieto has a uniquely spectacular way of celebrating today’s feast of Pentecost
Called the Festa della Palombella, it takes place in the packed square in front of the cathedral when an artificial dove, symbolising the Holy Spirit careers along a zip wire towards the West End of the Cathedral, propelled by fireworks. After a few seconds the dove comes speedily face to face with a wooden depiction of Mary and the apostles praying for the gift of the Holy Spirit and the whole thing explodes in a mass of red fireworks. It’s certainly a dramatic way of celebrating the glory of God and the showering of God’s gifts upon the church. Perhaps next year here in Southwark?
As we celebrate today the bestowing of the Holy Spirit upon the church, we might not have such an explosive liturgy but the effects are surely similar. Our two readings this afternoon form a contrast which was not lost on St Paul. He writes that the Law written on tablets of stone and given to Moses in the Old Covenant contrast with the Law written on the hearts of believers in the New Covenant. Believers are transformed and they can never be the same people again. God gives new life and does what the former Law could not. Without the help of the fireworks of Orvieto, Paul is seeking to open the eyes of the Christians in Corinth to the fact that the resurrection of Jesus gives dramatically new life and freedom that the old law could not possibly do. ‘The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life … where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom,’ he writes. The Spirit unleashed at Pentecost brings new hope, and energy and direction to the fledgling church filling them with all boldness and joy in believing.
Paul is emphasising to the church in Corinth that the new covenant of God with his people has a glory and freedom that the people living under the old Law, presented to Moses, could only dream of. Moses spends much of his time pleading for the people of Israel with God, praying that God will not condemn and punish them for their wilful disobedience of his laws. As a reward for Moses’ faithfulness God gives him a glimpse of his glory, so much so that Moses’ face glows and he needs to veil it and hide it from the people.
Paul tells his readers that even this glimpse of God’s glory enjoyed by Moses is nothing compared with the glory shared with believers through the resurrection of Christ from the dead and the gift of the Holy Spirit, bringing life to all, rather than condemnation and death. They have to believe and seek God’s glory without seeing what Moses saw and so they are called to live by faith and to live by the Spirit. You and I, the church of today, are called to seek the same glory of God and to be set on fire by God’s Holy Spirit, also living by faith, as did the early Church.
Today we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit poured out upon each one of us, upon the church here and throughout the world. Since the Feast of the Ascension we have been praying that God’s kingdom may come on earth, praying that God may send forth the Holy Spirit, and renew the face of the earth. Moses was transformed physically by his encounter with God. May what Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth be true for us this day as we seek to reflect the glory of God in our daily lives,
‘… 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.’