I. The first chapter of Genesis opens upon a huge panorama: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
The Hebrew word used for Spirit is the feminine noun Ruach. The Spirit of God carries the pronoun – she.
II. In the 22nd verse in the 8th chapter of his letter to the Romans, Paul offer us the intensely intimate image of the Creation in the travail of giving birth: for we know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.
Paul hones this image down even further as he tells us that as we too, continue in labor’s grip, we groan, we pant, and we push, driven by the hope of imminent new birth. In this state of travail, the Holy Spirit, like a midwife comes to our aid, supplying the strength we need to give birth to a new world.
III. For the Evangelist John, as Jesus bids farewell to those he has loved he tells them that: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you. The Advocate provides the energy of truth by which John means the empowerment to live more and more deeply, to grow day-by-day into the profound realization of God’s love for us.
IV. The most popular image for the Day of Pentecost, the 50th day after the Resurrection is given by the Evangelist Luke. Luke constructs a chronology of unfolding events. Incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension, all leading to the climactic moment in history when the Holy Spirit descends upon the world. For Luke, the coming of the Holy Spirit marks the point of transition between the ministry of Jesus and its continuance in the life of the Church now impregnated with God’s Holy Spirit.
The 2nd chapter of Luke-Acts opens upon another panorama, this time of Ruach the Spirit of God descending rather than brooding. As in Genesis, the action of the Holy Spirit is depicted through powerful elemental forces of nature, this time of wind and fire. As modern moviegoers, addicted as we are to special effects, we wonder, some with amazement, others with incredulity, at how this could be?
Luke’s purpose is not to awe us with the pyrotechnics of the latest blockbuster special effects. He wants to draw our attention to the effect upon humanity of the descent of the Spirit. The heat of fire and the noise and rush of wind are metaphors for a new birth, one marked by something very significant – difference no longer a source of division but enrichment.
There is an echo here to the 11th chapter of Genesis that records an example of humanity’s hubris. The people of that day thought they could build a tower tall enough to reach heaven. God frustrated the builders through destroying their ability to communicate in a common language. God says: Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other. On the day of Pentecost, the disciples praise God and all who witness the descent of the Holy Spirit upon them hears them speaking in their own language. The curse of Babel is lifted -difference no longer a source of division but enrichment.
Luke’s theological message is that for human society – born anew as the Church, it is no longer the business as usual of the old order.
Hope and Hopkins
In his poem God’s Grandeur the 19th century English Jesuit and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins proclaims that:
The World is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil – Crushed.
Yet, against the background of this optimistic proclamation Hopkins questions why humanity is so reckless of God’s gift of creation:
Why do men then now not reck his rod? Generations have trod, have trod, have trod; And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil and wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: The soil is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
Extending Hopkins’ inquiry I would ask why are we as human beings so fearful of the differences the lie between us? Our labor pains are marked by the futility of war and the injustice of oppression in which generations have trod, have trod, have trod. We have become insensible to the feel of the earth, increasingly made barren beneath our shod feet. Our social relations are mired: seared with trade, bleared, smeared, with toil sharing man’s smudge.
We notice that we are not all the same. We notice the obvious differences between us expressed through gender, sexuality, race, culture, and class difference. Such difference becomes emblematic of the differentials of power, privilege, and access to the protection that difference affords to some and denies to others.
The birth of the new Spirit-filled order comes as a challenge to the human propensity to distribute power, unequally. Luke’s vision of the Holy Spirit is of the anima – the feminine energy of new birth, embracing and celebrating the rich diversity of being human. Difference, no longer the source of division becomes the celebration of diversity as the Holy Spirit calms our fear.
God as Holy Spirit is powerfully present in our various communities, but particularly so in the community of the baptized. Each week as spiritually searching people, we negotiate the complexities and pressures of our daily lives. This experience reminds us of something intangible that seems to be lacking in our lives. Our search leads us through a Church door. Initially, we may be somewhat bewildered to find ourselves sitting in the pew of this church; a church for God’s sake, and an Episcopal Church at that, whose liturgy and welcome seem both unfamiliar and wonderful at the same time. This mysterious turn in our lives brings us to return through those doors a second, and a third time. We don’t have to know why we return. Those of us who are seeking God as a source of meaning in our lives intuit that we can be nowhere else.
Luke’s vision of God embracing all kinds of diversity is continually coming true in Church communities of bewildering variety. Genesis presents us with an image of God as Spirit brooding over the abyss of the world calling forth order from chaos, out of which creation is born. Pentecost presents us with an image of God as Spirit now impregnated deep within the human DNA as that longed for God shaped space, or as Hopkins more poignantly says it:
And for all this, nature is never spent; There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
St Paul phrases it like this: in hope we are saved, but the trick of hope is to have the courage to hope for that as yet unseen. Into the space of the yet to become known, the Holy Spirit pours her power and spreads her balm.
And though the last lights off the black West went Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
God’s Grandeur Gerard Manley Hopkins S.J.