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06. Spiritual Fireworks

Pentecost: Like fireworks in the night (CH4 584)

It seems that no major event in these days is complete without the pyrotechnics; whether it's the Millennium, the Capital of Culture, or the Olympics, the celebration is not over until the fireworks explode! We have become quite used to colourful lights in the sky - but is that how it appeared to the Disciples on that first Day of Pentecost?

Our chosen firecracker of a hymn for Pentecost was written by Ian Masson Fraser (b.1917), a minister of the Kirk and a native of Forres in Moray, who is the author of three hymns in CH4, as well as several books (one of which carries the appropriate title Strange Fire). Fraser was one of the original members of the Iona Community who helped George MacLeod to rebuild the Abbey buildings on the isle of Iona. For a time he was on the staff of the World Council of Churches in Geneva, and for nine years was Dean and Head of the Department of Mission at Selly Oak College, Birmingham. He was closely involved in the Scottish Churches' Consultation on Music, while he was warden of Scottish Churches House in Dunblane, which he set up in the 1960s (and which sadly closed earlier this year), and played a prominent role in the production two collections of new and recent material entitled Dunblane Praises.

The hymn is written in metre 6666.4444 and is set to the tune St John (Havergal), which first appeared in The Parish Choir (Vol 3) of 1851. It is sometiomes attributed to Rev William Henry Havergal (1793-1870) father of Frances Ridley Havergal, a hymnwriter in her own right. Havergal was a noted church musician; and he devoted much of his life to improving the quality of church music after a carriage accident, in which he sustained concussion and permanent damage to his eyes forced him to resign his living soon after Frances' birth.

Like fireworks in the night
comprises three verses. The first describes (in its titular line) how the coming of the Holy Spirit might have seemed to the waiting disciples and how the twelve became emboldened by power from on high. The events of Pentecost are described in Acts 2:1-13, following Jesus' great commission in Matthew 28:16-20.

Verse 2 expands on the early church sharing everything in common (Acts 2:42-47) and explains the point of the oft-misunderstood gift of tongues - not something spectacular to be flaunted, but given so that everybody understood. The address of the emboldened Peter is evidence of the Spirit's power.

Verse 3 is a challenge to us to change the world  in the power of that same Spirit. The gifts of the Spirit are listed in Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, Ephesians 4 and Galatians 5:22 and 23.

The concluding line's image of Pentecost running 'through the world like forest fire' is striking, as television coverage of such natural disasters portrays, but unfortunate, since forest fires are inevitably destructive, whereas the coming of the Spirit was to change the world for good and for Christ.

And so, as we celebrate Pentecost we pray with Ian Fraser:

  Lord God,
Whose son was content to die
to bring new life,
have mercy on your church
which will do anything you ask,
anything at all,
except die and be reborn.

Lord Christ,
forbid us unity
which leaves us where we are and as we are;
welded into one company
but extracted from the battle;
engaged to be yours,
but not found at your side.

Holy Spirit of God,
reach deeper than our inertia and fears:
release us into the freedom of children of God.