Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire, and lighten with celestial fire.
Enable with perpetual light the dullness of our blinded sight,
that through the ages all along, this may be our endless song:
praise to thy eternal merit, Father , Son, and Holy Spirit.
Latin, 9th century
Like the murmur of the dove’s song,
like the challenge of her flight,
like the vigor of the wind’s rush,
like the new flame’s eager might:
Come, Holy Spirit, come.
Pentecost Sunday 2011,
Church of the Epiphany, Norfolk, VA
photos courtesy of J. Rochelle
Our Gospel Reading for this morning is a portion of the 1st Chapter of the Gospel of John, also referred to as The 4th Gospel. The Gospel of John is very different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and because of that, a lot of New Testament study gets spent on the Gospel of John.
This Gospel was probably written as a teaching tool to those Christian communities up there in Greece, Constantinople, and what is now Turkey. And this is why the language and imagery of the Gospel of John is so different. The vocabulary, the sentence structure, and the language are very sophisticated and very stylized. The recurring references to “opposites in tension,” like “light and dark,” is considered Greek thinking, but it gets expressed differently in the Gospel of John. So what we have with John, is a writer in the region of today’s Turkey telling the story of Jesus, and the events around his life, but not a history. He is trying to explain “why”, not “what”, and we’re not very used to that. We, today, are ferocious about “historical accuracy,” as we’ve just seen with all the local to-do over errors in our school history books. The writer of Luke and Acts was writing history, trying to get the historical facts right. But the writer of John was “reading back into history,” from a distance of years, and miles, and cultures, and show how this “Christ Event” fits into the “divine scheme.” The writer was showing God moving in this creation, and not just for the moment, but from the beginning of time.
He opens his Gospel with, “In the beginning was the word….” paralleling Genesis, “In the beginning God created….” The writer of John is going all the way back to the beginning of time, and bringing time forward to the life, ministry, and death of Jesus. Because for John, with the death of Jesus begins the new creation where all human sins have been forgiven, and creation has started anew.
In today’s reading, we get two very important symbols: the Lamb of God and the Dove.
Let’s take the Dove first, because that’s the easiest. According to the Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary, that I checked last night, any bird in the pigeon family was referred to as a “Dove” in the Bible. They were non-aggressive, peaceful birds, sometimes used to symbolize innocence, and sometimes seen as messengers from God. They rode the Holy Wind of God, and could go all the way to the heavens. It was a Dove that brought back the olive branch to Noah’s Arc. We get Doves all over the place in both the Old and New Testament. And when Doves appear, they are usually symbols of God’s acting – or offerings to God – that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. If they are messengers of God, it seems like you wouldn’t sacrifice them. But that’s what we get.
So, in today’s reading, the Dove represents the “Spirit of God”, or the Holy Spirit, or the Holy Wind, or the Holy Breath of God. To the writer of John, this Dove descending on Jesus fulfills the prophesy from John the Baptist, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.”
One of the things that I really liked about the Dove on the front of our bulletin this morning is that it is “in flight.” It appears to be coming down from the Holy Wind, the Holy breath, and has not yet lit on “the chosen one.” I see a lot of action and energy in that painting that says to me what I think John was feeling.
More complicated is the Lamb of God. The lamb also is seen as innocence and purity. Sheep were very important to life in that region of the world. If you had sheep, you could live a comfortable life. They reproduced easily, and they provided almost everything necessary to life, from food, to textiles, to income. And they demanded very little, other than protection. They can not protect themselves from predators. They have to BE protected. So, we get this picture of innocence, with mystical powers, kind of like the idea of the unicorn. Innocence and mystery go together. At the Passover, it is the blood of a lamb, the Pascal Lamb, that is put on the door posts to protect the Israelites and allow them to leave slavery in Egypt. We get references to the “innocent lamb” being led to the slaughter – usually as a sacrifice. The idea is that since it is defenseless and pure and innocent, it can carry our sins away with it – again – innocence and mystery working together.
So, through Jewish history, each year the Pascal Lamb was and is offered at the Passover – the most perfect lamb that could be found. Because in its perfection, it could carry away the sins of the people.
This concept comes down to us in our Eucharist. This morning, when the bread is broken, the priest will say: “Christ, our Passover, is sacrificed for us.” And the people will respond, “Therefore let us keep the Feast.” The idea is that Christ became the perfect lamb – the Pascal Lamb – and because he was perfect, when he was sacrificed on the cross, he was able to carry away the sins of all humankind and usher in the New Creation.
Our Gospel Reading this morning begins: “John saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.’” See how it all weaves together? And the writer of the Gospel of John is the master weaver. When you read the Gospel of John you are reading one of the most brilliant compilations of theology through the ages that has ever been written. Like the breath of God, it really does start at creation, and carry right up to today.
It’s difficult reading. You almost have to read one sentence at a time, and think about it a long time before going on to the next idea. But it’s well worth it, and I commend it to you. Amen.
The Very Reverend Richard O. Bridgford, Rector
Church of the Epiphany, Norfolk, VA
John 1:29-41; 1/16/11, Epiphany Norfolk