When I was a child, our local cathedral was Coventry Cathedral. We weren’t Church of England and we didn’t go there all the time, but it was the local cathedral, and it was where we went from time to time. The cathedral was consecrated on 25 May 1962, so this the anniversary week. What you see is a modern building full of light, Graham Sutherland’s tapestry of Christ in Glory behind the high altar, on your right a kaleidoscopic baptistery window of hundreds of colours surrounding a font which is an enormous rock from Bethlehem, and much of the cathedral has a jet-black polished marble floor.
Coventry is, of course, one cathedral in two buildings. Next to the next cathedral stands the shell of the old cathedral bombed in 1940, as eloquent as any ruins in England. It speaks poignantly of ‘war and the pity of war’, Wilfred Owen’s words quoted by Benjamin Britten in the War Requiem, commissioned for the Cathedral and first performed there. But the ruins don’t only speak of sacrifice and death. They speak powerfully of life. At open-air communion services in the early morning on Easter Day and Pentecost, it can be as if the skeleton of that beautiful 15th century church reaches for the sky, a striking metaphor of resurrection as if we were in some great empty tomb. Ezekiel’s dry bones: arid, dead, lifeless things which the Spirit brings back to life again.
The focus of Coventry Cathedral’s ministry ever since the war has been reconciliation. Beginning with the rebuilding of friendship with Germany, this work has spread to many places of conflict across the world. The most recent partner who joined only a few days ago is Crookham United Reformed Church in Northumberland, who have developed a peace and reconciliation centre as they are close to the site of the Battle of Flodden Field where the English and Scots laid into one another in 1513.
Pentecost is all about reconciliation. We heard from Genesis the story of the tower of Babel. I don’t think this a story about building a tower. It’s nothing to do with buildings at all – it’s about the consequences of people not being reconciled with one another. Because people fell out with each other, they ended up speaking different languages, not understanding one another. And we find the response to this story in part of the story of the first day of Pentecost from Acts. Here there were many languages being spoken, and suddenly the disciples could understand them all. What I think this has to say to us is that an important part of the story of Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit is about reconciliation.
Indeed, Pentecost promises the transformation of the whole of life, even in its darkest, most broken passages. The face of Christ in that Graham Sutherland tapestry in Coventry has a gaze that seems to know you in a profound way, draw you upwards, put to you God’s questions, speak compellingly about grace and truth. Above him a shaft of light streams down on his head as if he were being baptised by a glow that pours over him from a window in the sky. And right at the top is the origin of that light: a dove. She is descending on that sunbeam towards Christ and towards us: the Holy Spirit of Christ the risen Head who animates the body of his church, the community of the baptised, the faithful of every age and the faithful of today. Us.
In 1990 Coventry marked the 50th anniversary of the Luftwaffe air-raids codenamed ‘Moonlight Sonata’, when incendiaries rained down on the city and burned its heart out, destroying the cathedral with it. The story is told that one day an elderly man came into the ruins, and walked slowly up the length of the nave to the stone altar in the apse, tentative as though he was not sure if he should be there. He stood for a long time gazing at the charred cross and at the inscription on the wall behind it, ‘Father, forgive’. And then he began to sob: not in a self-dramatizing way, but with the honesty of a child who has been confronted with some personal truth that is too overwhelming for words. The Provost embraced him and they held on to each other for some considerable time. That man had been a Luftwaffe pilot on that terrible bombing raid of 14 November. In 50 years he had never been able to bring himself to visit the city. But now he wanted to come before he died, and face the truth of what he and his comrades had done so many years before, the truth of ‘war and the pity of war’. It felt like a moment of life-changing forgiveness and reconciliation.
At Pentecost, we should ask ourselves if we are genuinely open to the Holy Spirit. Not that we speak with tongues, or prophesy, or understand mysteries, or give away all that we own or even have faith to move mountains. Paul tells us that there is one first-fruit of the Spirit’s harvest that we must covet above all others. Love is that fruit. Love is the only thing that matters: love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, love that never ends. It is love inspired by the Spirit, brought back to life by the Spirit, which enables us to join in God’s mission to bring reconciliation to his world. The dove descending on that sunbeam on the tapestry reminds me why I am here: to learn how to see in a new way, and then to act on what I see. And then I know that in the power of God’s risen Son and his life-giving Spirit, anything is possible.