If you are reading this as part of Sunday’s worship, and you have a lighted candle on your table, I’d like you to look at it.
If not, in a moment, close your eyes and imagine a candle flame in front of you.
I want you to look at the flame – not the candle or the wick, but the actual flame above it. So please, stop reading now for about a minute and look just at that – in front of you, or in your mind’s eye.
If you can, keep seeing it in your imagination now that you are reading again – that’d be brilliant.
Because I want you to picture what it might be like to look at that flame if you had never, ever seen fire before. Imagine how amazed you would be to see this light that is there but isn’t there, that flickers and moves and radiates heat, and yet you can see through it, your finger goes right through if you try to touch it, and it’s gone instantly with just a puff of breath. Where did it go? Where did it come from? Is it alive? What on earth is it? If you first saw a candle flame at a travelling circus or a variety show, you’d think that it was some kind of trick done with mirrors; surely nothing can be there so powerfully, and yet not be there at all, at the same time?
What I’m getting at is that a candle flame is utterly miraculous, and it’s only because we see it so often that we don’t think anything much of it. You may remember your science teacher telling you how a flame – “combustion” – works, I’m afraid I’ve forgotten. Something about ionised air. But even that doesn’t tell us what a flame is. It is quite simply enough to stop anyone in their tracks, if we didn’t see it so often that we think, “Oh, it’s just a flame.”
And that miracle, the one that we can see in front of us, is the same miracle that is happening in our muscles, brain, heart and organs every moment of every hour of our life. Our blood brings oxygen to the tiniest cells of our body and those cells use it to produce the energy of life, in exactly the same way as a candle – a tiny burst of flame to produce heat, movement, growth or thought.
It’s a downright miracle, a bloomin’ mystery, and breath-taking gift. Mostly, we can’t see it – it’s happening deep in our bodies – and when we can, it’s strange and fascinating and flickering and ephemeral and other-worldly.
And that, my friends, is the deep, deep mystery of how God gives us just the physical gift of life. It works perfectly. It upholds every living thing on this planet that teams with life. It gave light to J S Bach when he was composing his masterpieces, it terrified firefighters in Australia with its awesome power, and yet it isn’t a thing – it’s movement, it’s energy, it’s vitality.
And if that is how God gives the gift of life to the grass of the field – here today and tomorrow thrown into the oven – just try to imagine the deep mystery of the gift of the Spirit, the Person of the Godhead who gives life to the soul. The bit that matters so much more than grass, or flowers or sparrows. She is unseen, moving like the wind that blows where it wills, and (to most of our world, it seems) unrecognised. But her power brings the true, inner life, brings new birth and new possibilities, burns away dross to leave pure, precious gold.
Wind, flame, fire, breath, mother, creator… No matter what images we turn to, they fall far, far short of what we’re trying to express. The flame of life that is known yet unknown, seen yet invisible, intimate yet untamed. One day of festival can never be enough to celebrate the half of it.
Perhaps the best way to know the meaning of a flame is to imagine a world without it – dark, lifeless, cold. And the best way to know the meaning of the Spirit is to imagine life without her – divided, warring, purposeless and without hope. Except that we don’t, sadly, have to imagine.
Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your people, and kindle in us the flame of your love. Amen.