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Let there be light – in C major


IMAGINE being in a desert. As you sit there in the silence and the empty horizon, all seems still. But by your side there starts up an innocent curl of sand, spinning until it enlarges into the full desert wind. It is blinding, deafening, opaque, the very image of movement and power. This is what the ancient Israelites called the ru’ach – and they used the same word for wind and spirit. The Holy Spirit, the Holy Ghost, is God in all his turbulent activity of creation and – at Whitsun or Pentecost – recreation. 

Let’s go back to the beginning. Haydn’s oratorio The Creation is such a dazzling statement of the creation myth: his magnificent music adds a dimension to the original account of the creation in Genesis. The Bible story of the creation exists to reveal the truth that in the beginning God the Holy Ghost brought order out of chaos. Haydn communicates this truth sensationally by first representing chaos in a series of discords and wandering tonalities before he declares Let there be light! in the cosmic concord of C major. 

Imagine again, the ru’ach, the creative spirit of God – but this time in Joseph Haydn. There was never such a man so filled with the benign industriousness of the Holy Ghost as Papa Haydn. Up in the morning and praying to the Blessed Virgin, then setting about a big breakfast before, as he put it, I sit down at the clavier and begin my search. Haydn was in Vienna when that city was being shelled by Napoleon in 1809 and Beethoven had taken refuge in the cellar. But Haydn stayed in his music room, occasionally going to the piano and playing a few bars of the Austrian national anthem – which was only fair, since he had written it. And not just in his music room but going out into the streets during the bombardment where the children were crying. He would pick them up saying, Don’t be frightened, children. Where Papa Haydn is, no harm can come to you! Joseph Haydn, a spirit-filled man of God.

Words can imagine the Holy Ghost. But to discover the full sense, we must hear the Holy Ghost. It is hard to conceive of a richer evocation of the act of creation than what we have in Haydn’s work. We are never so religiously engaged with the Person and work of the Holy Ghost than in the opening of that oratorio. Then comes triumphant chorus, celebrating the creation of the universe. The Heavens are Telling the Glory of God is bursting with ecstatic affirmation. But first God has hefty work to do. We should not imagine it was an easy thing to make the stars – to wrestle with chaos when the earth was without form and void and darkness upon the face of the deep.

And there is the miracle: And God said, Let there be light! And there was light. And there was C major. And God saw the light, that it was good. And Joseph Haydn saw C major and, behold, it was very good. And he gave thanks to the Blessed Virgin. Then God made the animals and the trees and the fish – especially the bizarre and amusing fish. And Haydn, in imitation of God, makes the animals and the fishes in his own medium which is music. The Creation gives us first-hand experience of the Holy Ghost in operation. Here is the composer working hard and having fun. Here is the Holy Ghost working hard and having fun. And God laughed, and the evening and the morning were the first day.

God the Holy Ghost takes possession of human beings. This is what happened to the apostles: they were transformed from being fearful, cowering men, hiding themselves from the same authorities who had crucified Christ, into confident, joyful witnesses to his Resurrection:

‘And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.’

That rushing mighty wind arrived in Eastbourne two days early this year!

There is no inspiration and no creation without hard work and pain. Consider Haydn as he went after breakfast in trepidation to pray to the Virgin for help with composition. Contemplate God the Holy Ghost as he brooded over the primeval chaos before the morning stars could sing together and all the sons of God shout for joy. St Paul tells us what inspiration, creativity and life are like: the whole creation groaneth in travail. Groaning is what you have to do in order to create something. That is what God did.

To only a few is it given to be great artists, but all humankind is called to join in the creative work of the Holy Ghost. We do it by doing our best. Supremely we do it by being towards God – turning our whole being perpetually towards God as the flower turns up to the sun. We must recognise that the Holy Spirit is, as it says in the Creed, the Lord and giver of life; and so all the life that is in us is by the indwelling of the Holy Ghost. And we acknowledge the value and purpose of this life by trying to forbear, forgive and love one another for God’s sake. On the day of Pentecost, the apostles were one in the Spirit. This gift is for us too. To rejoice in the fellowship that God has given us here. We are to be as exuberant about this as the apostles were – and as intelligent. Moreover, the Holy Ghost is not a personal, private possession: it is the bond of unity and community, the one Spirit of which we all partake. As T S Eliot said:

There is no life not lived in community and no community not lived in praise of God. 

And the life of the community is the life of the one Spirit.

The Holy Ghost brings us many gifts. For example, Blaise Pascal said, The whole trouble with mankind is that we can’t sit quietly in our own room for half an hour. We find ourselves, as Eliot said, distracted from distraction by distraction. We observe our human condition and it is astonishing – literally dispiriting – to see just how restless and discontented we are.

Too often we waste our lives uncreatively, dispiritedly by not living in the present. What the Holy Ghost enables us to do is to live content in the reality of now. The Holy Ghost is the mediator of the sacrament of the present moment. This is why the Holy Ghost is called the Lord, the Giver of Life. Now is the acceptable time and now is the day of salvation. The Holy Ghost is the God of joy in the present moment. We might say, The Holy Ghost is the time of your life.

The Holy Ghost is the Third Person of the Trinity with the Father and the Son. In St Augustine’s shattering phrase, He is the love by which the Father loveth the Son and the Son loveth the Father. Or as Lancelot Andrewes says, The Holy Ghost is the love-knot of the two Persons, the Father and the Son.

Whitsunday is the reversal of Babel – the restoration to God’s people of the power of authentic utterance.

The dove descending breaks the air with flame of incandescent terror

Of which the tongues declare the one discharge from sin and error,

The only hope or else despair lies in the choice of pyre or pyre –

To be redeemed from fire by fire.

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Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen is a Church of England clergyman, writer and broadcaster

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