Riding the wings of Wild Geese, AKA filled with the Holy Spirit. Tongues of fire is a phrase that comes to my mind most often when I have just had a particularly lively plate of chilli rather than making me think about the Holy Spirit – sad to say, but true. Other images we might consider are the mighty rushing wind, the spirit descending like a dove. In Genesis the spirit brooding over the waters of creation. However the image which captures my attention the most is that of the Wild Goose, the ancient Celtic symbol of the Holy Spirit.
Wild geese are surprisingly enough – wild. There are few charms that a town like Swindon can offer, but one of these you can only experience around October. It is one of the many landing sites for migrating Canadian Geese. It is a most humbling experience to watch them arrive. They come in to land together, never singly. Immediately after landing they feed and preen. One assumes they are happy to have arrived safely at their over-wintering site. They are truly wild, untamed, uncontrolled. They will happily bite those who try to catch them and don’t expect any gratitude if you try to feed them bread – mostly they are not interested.
So why has the image of the wild goose been associated with the so called Celtic Church and more recently appropriated by the Iona Community? Probably because like the Goose those parts of the church can appear untamed and wild, even uncontrolled. But that is exactly the experience of the Holy Spirit. Time after time generations have tried to put God in a box, or to nail down theology, or even nail it to a door. The establishment tries to control, but the spirit breaks free, and bites those who try to stop it! The spirit of God is wild, untamed and uncontrollable. The Goose reminds us that when God’s spirit is active in us, that we should expect the unexpected.
But the image of the Goose is good for more than this.
Every reform of the church has taken the risk of a new adventure, pushing the boundaries, stepping out of what is deemed to be safe and they have changed the image and focus of the church radically and dramatically. If you want the biblical background you may as well begin with Genesis and work forwards. But Numbers and Acts will do fine. Who is to say those were the only times the spirit was active. No, the Spirit of God goes on warning of the dangers of believing in the Gospel as something to be controlled or contained. We can learn about the Spirit of God, and about ourselves in community from the behaviour of the Wild Goose.
A flock, Gaggle,Team or Wedge of Wild Geese is a community. There is a constant barrage of popular cultural propaganda which says individualism is supreme – and even within the church. However, the testimony of the earliest Desert Fathers and Celtic Christians, and of Christian communities, is that the Spirit brings us into deeper community relationships.
There are five marks of a Flock of Wild Geese and five lessons for us as people alive in the spirit of God. Flying in the V formation gives geese a seventy-one per cent increase in flying range. Those in front create an updraft for those following. We learn that people who share a common vision get to travel much further, and get there much more quickly and easily with the extra thrust they derive from one another.
The lead goose in the formation tires faster than the others. So it rotates back into the formation and another goose takes over the lead. We learn that it pays to take turns doing the hard tasks and sharing responsibilities in the community of faith.
When a goose falls out of formation, it feels the drag and resistance of flying alone, and quickly gets back into the formation. Those who go it alone tend to get left behind.
When a wild goose is sick or wounded, two others follow it to help and protect it until it recovers or dies while the others continue to fly on. When the goose recovers or dies, a new formation is created, heading in the same direction as the first. We need to stand by each other in the difficult times as well as when we are strong, and that the direction and impetus of the community can continue even when some fall by the wayside. It is possible for the direction to be picked up again and continued by those who have been left behind.
When geese are flying in formation, those flying behind honk to encourage those in front to keep up speed. The song of the Spirit-goose clashes with us because its insistence is on renewal and change, justice and truth and is sometimes harsh and threatens ‘the peace and unity of the church’. Those upon whom the Spirit rests are forced by that Spirit to become like wild geese – noisy, passionate and courageous advocates of the gospel’s radical demands. They have often been reviled, ostracised, excommunicated, imprisoned, tortured, exiled, or killed by the power-holders. But they have often made a difference, wild goose Christians have saved Christianity by ultimately transforming it. As a modern Christian community, flying in as the geese do and filled with the spirit, there is a renewed energy and strength for the journey in being together and being those who support, cajole and encourage each other in the journey of faith.