The Rev. Melanie McCarley
The Day of Pentecost is rife with symbolism. There is wind, reminding us of the rush of air filling the house where the disciples were staying; and flames alighting upon the heads of Jesus’ followers. Among the varied symbols we associate with the arrival of the Holy Spirit, there is also the dove. The dove calls to mind the Spirit of God alighting upon our Savior at his baptism, and reminds us of the story of Noah and the promise of a new earth born out of the chaos of the flood.
But there is another symbol of the Holy Spirit with which you may not be as familiar. The wild goose. Yes, that’s right…a goose. For Celtic Christians living in Brittany, Wales, Ireland and the Scottish Highlands—it wasn’t the dove which captured their imagination. It was the goose.
In truth, I’m partial to this image. The goose is a symbol to which I can relate. Allow me to tell you why. Though Phil and I hail from South Carolina and Virginia, respectively, when we got married, Phil’s job was at Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis, and this is where we began our married life. In fact, our daughter is a Hoosier.
Our first apartment was in the city limits of Indianapolis, situated next to a corn field. I was delighted with this one bedroom apartment. It had a little porch which looked out over a pond. I thought it beautiful. The apartment also came with geese. Canada Geese. Lots of them. At first, I loved the geese too (in a picturesque kind-of way) then I got to know them.
From a distance, Canada Geese look stately. They really are beautiful birds. But let me tell you, they are also loud and raucous. You hear them coming. And they can be aggressive—particularly when they have young goslings they are trying to protect. And, let’s be honest, geese are messy! If you live with geese—you watch where you step. Living with a gaggle of Canada Geese is not for the faint of heart. What’s more, you don’t invite geese onto your property—they arrive, they set up shop, and they leave when they want to. And when they arrive, you can count on a bit of chaos appearing on the scene right along with them. Don’t think for a moment that you can go on living your life the way you want—walking by the lovely pond, strolling barefoot on the grass. No, come into contact with a group of wild geese and you will change your behavior long before they change theirs.
Contrast this with the dove. Doves gently coo, geese honk. Doves have subtlety—there’s nothing subtle about a Wild Goose. Doves can be tamed—goodness, we release them at weddings. To my knowledge, no one has ever attempted to release wild geese at a wedding—and woe be unto them who try. Doves are a symbol of peace—peace is not what I have experienced when it comes to living next to geese. When you get right down to it geese can be threatening. Few people dare to mess with geese. If you’ve ever seen a goose cross a road, you get the picture. These animals, they do not hurry; dare I say, they swagger, walking as if they own the road. Geese are loud, brazen and aggressive. Yet, there is also this, geese are deeply social creatures. They encourage on another. They fly in a V formation—cooperating and working with one another so that everyone gets to the same place. They are devoted to one another. Geese are a marvel. I am of the opinion that our Celtic forbears had the right idea—in many ways, a wild goose makes a fine symbol of the Holy Spirit.
Think of it, while there are times when the Holy Spirit brings peace—there are plenty of other occasions when that same Spirit ushers in a time of chaos. The Book of Acts tells us that the Spirit arrives like a mighty wind—not a soft breeze, but a rushing, thundering whoosh. If it could honk—I’m sure it would. There was nothing subtle or even gentle about the first Pentecost. It was bewildering and confusing. My goodness, the scriptures tell us that the disciples were mistaken for being drunk.
So, consider this aspect of the arrival of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Like the wild goose, the Spirit is not going to be easily tamed and compartmentalized into our lives—come into contact with the living God, and you will be changed. Indeed, you might discover that living with a little bit of chaos is good for the soul.
Living with the Holy Spirit is a bit like living with a gaggle of Canada Geese. The Spirit has the capacity to disturb our carefully set plans, and, just when we’re sitting quietly on the porch relaxing, it rocks us out of complacency. It arrives when we least expect and sometimes leads us in astonishing directions. As Hilary Ann Golden says: “The Holy Spirit, like a wild goose is always on the move, always doing unexpected things; it is loud, passionate, sometimes frightening, and certainly unsettling.”
Yet that same Spirit is also empowering. It allows the disciples to speak in different languages—and be understood. It brings together people and banishes fear—it sends those same disciples who were gathered in that room out into the world to spread the Gospel. In many ways, the Spirit, dwelling in us, allows us to be a bit like a gaggle of wild geese ourselves. It brings us closer together, it ensures that as much as is possible, we maintain a spirit of what it means to be church—a community of faith—in a deeply individualistic and divisive age. It is, in the best sense of the word, hopeful—holding forth possibilities opening our eyes and hearts to new ways of seeing the world and our God. If we listen, perhaps we’ll hear the honking, and find ourselves anticipating the arrival of the wild geese, calling us to live boldly in community, and follow where the Holy Spirit is leading, working together so as to leave no one behind. In the name of the Triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.