Touching the wind: how we describe the Holy Spirit

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Spirit of God, unseen as the wind,
gentle is the dove…

Margaret Old begins her hymn to the Spirit of God (StF 394) with two contrasting images: one, an acknowledgement that we cannot know what the Spirit looks like; the other, a reference to a familiar image of the Spirit-as-dove. These are both ideas that thread their way through many of the hymns within the Singing the Faith section titled The Gift and Work of the Holy Spirit.

In our singing, we invoke the Spirit: we plead for the Spirit’s presence (“Come down, O Love divine / seek thou this soul of mine”, StF 372) and we welcome it (“Holy Spirit, we welcome you, / Holy Spirit we welcome you!” StF 385)

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But perhaps we should be careful what we wish for. Elizabeth Ann Head offers a vision of the Spirit’s power “sweeping through us” tsunami-like. In her quest for a Church that is cleansed and prepared to acknowledge its need of God, she invites the “wind of God” to “come, bend us, break us” (StF 391). It’s a vision of God’s Spirit that is at one with the transforming Spirit at work at the outset of creation, described in Genesis 1: 2. Sylvia Dunstan’s baptismal hymn, Crashing waters at creation (StF 376), picks up on this aspect, as does Into a world of dark, / wasted and disordered space by Ann Phillips (StF 387).

These hymns sit in contrast with gentler invocations, such as Johnny Martin’s Holy breath of God (StF 380). There’s almost a lullaby quality to his words:

Fall, sweet mercy, fall on me,
healing by your grace.
Tender hand of God,
hold me in your care.
All my fears and broken dreams,
every burden bear.

Other writers draw these contrasts into a single text. Carl Daw follows the first line of his fine hymn, Like the murmur of the dove’s song (StF 389), with two phrases that see the dove take flight and the energy of the Holy Spirit take wing:

Like the murmur of the dove’s song,
like the challenge of her flight,
like the vigour of the wind’s rush…

… and then he points us towards the fire imagery of the first Pentecost event as re-told in Acts 2: 1 – 21:

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like the new flame’s eager might:
come, Holy Spirit, come.

The bird / dove image is also central to John Bell and Graham Maule’s She sits like a bird, brooding on the waters (StF 393) and is the starting point for Shirley Erena Murray’s Spirit who broods, / Spirit who sings (StF 396), in which she explores the idea that the Holy Spirit lives within the Christian community (it’s not an external presence), and needs to be drawn out of us in order to “renew the face of the earth”.

Water, fire, a dove in flight: each hard to hold, each causing or embodying transformation and movement. These images thread through the books of the Bible, from Genesis to Acts, and continue to inform the way contemporary hymn writers express the character of the Holy Spirit and how we sing the story of Pentecost.

Categories: Pentecost, Worship Resources.

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