The Holy Spirit
What is the work of the Holy Spirit?
Breath, Fire and Dove
There are at least three strong and resonant images associated with the Spirit: breath, fire, and the dove. They are all vibrant images, life images, visible and invisible icons. Breath evokes the sense of the intimacy and presence of the Spirit, with us always, even when we are unaware of it. Much of the spirit language in the Bible is breath language. In Hebrew the word for spirit is ruach, literally “breath” or “wind.” It is a female noun, and it is employed in the very first verses of Genesis to speak of the mothering, life-giving Spirit of God that hovered, brooded, over the deep at the dawn of creation. Fire evokes the sense of power and empowerment that was the experience of Pentecost and that energized the mission of the early church. Fifty days after the resurrection of Christ, the disciples experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, with the rushing sound of a mighty wind and the descent of what seemed to be the flames of fire setting upon their tongues and giving them the ability to speak of the mighty works of God in the languages of earth.
Breath and fire may be distinct images, but they belong together as intertwined images of the Spirit. The Spirit both nurtures contemplation and empowers action; the Spirit guides us into a life in which these moments of stillness and action; silence and energy are balanced. Finally, there is the bird, the dove, which has become the preeminent icon of the Spirit in the church. The dove’s flight is the image of the Spirit’s freedom; she is not tethered to the church. As Metropolitan George Khodr of the Orthodox church in Lebanon put it, “other religions too come under the wings of the Spirit.”
There are moments in all human lives of what Martin Buber called the “I-Thou experience”—where eyes meet, where truth meets truth, where one being meets another. Love and suffering, beauty and horror provide us with the experience of such moments. The I-Thou experience of full presence is what Krishnamurti calls “choiceless awareness”—awareness without the grasping, naming, categorizing, and polarizing that distances us from experience. Full presence living. Ordinary human experience can name such moments. They are times of insight, recognition, and awareness. Christians give a name to this powerful sense of presence: The Holy Spirit. It is what Bishop John V. Taylor has called the “Go-Between God,” the invisible “current of communication” that streams between us when we truly recognize the presence of the other. Breath, fire and dove all, in different ways, are annunciations of the presence of the “Go-Between God.”
The most pervasive and intimate presence of the Divine has often been expressed with “breath language.” The Jesuit theologian Donald Gelpi says, “breathing” is perhaps even better than “breath” because it conveys the energy and activity of movement. It inspires, it fills, it “clothes” the prophets with power, it enters into their hearts. The Bible is filled with the descent and the infusion of this divine breath. It was the Spirit that came upon David when he was anointed by Samuel (I Samuel 16:13). It was the Spirit that inspired Bezalel, the chief architect of the tabernacle, with his creativity and artistry: “And I have filled Bezalel with the Spirit of God, with the ability and intelligence, with knowledge and craftmanship, to devise artistic designs” (Exod. 35:30ff.). And it is the same Spirit that came upon Mary, descended upon Jesus, and poured out upon the church at Pentecost.
In the Gospel of John, the risen Christ is said to breathe upon his disciples and thus transmit to them the Holy Spirit as they were gathered together (John 20:22). The Divine within us is not exactly our own breath, our own process of respiration as such, but breath is surely the closest possible analogue to what we mean when we speak of the human “soul” or “spirit.” Breath is enlivening, it sustains us even when we forget it, even when we are asleep. Breath is vital to our individual existence, and yet it is not “ours,” for we share the fact of that vital presence with all that lives.
Breath is the invisible icon of the Divine. In breath-centered meditation, one rests the mind in the breath, returning again and again to the breath as the mind wanders. It is the breath that draws one back to awareness, to presence. In Christian meditation, it is the breath that draws one again and again to the awareness of God. To speak of our human breath as an icon means that it is both a reminder of God’s presence and a window through which we may be drawn toward God’s presence at any time and any place, for the breath is the most portable of icons. It is indeed the go-between, rising and falling, tracing an invisible thread of connection between the respiration of the body and the Spirit of God.
Those of us who look to Genesis say that God “breathed the breath of life” into Adam and that first human being became “a living soul” (Gen. 2:7). The ruach of a person is the God-given breath of life. The Quakers call it “that of God in us.” As Job put it, “The spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life…. If he should take back his spirit to himself, and gather to himself his breath, all flesh would perish together, and all mortals return to dust.” (Job 33: 4, 34:14). In many religious traditions, breath is a primary image for the divine presence within.
In the Christian tradition, the language of the Holy Spirit is not only one of breath, attention, and presence, but also a language of energy and fire. The experience of the Spirit is not only the experience of calm insight, but also the experience of power and empowerment. The decent of the Spirit at the time of the baptism of Jesus, an event recorded in all four Gospels, was clearly an empowerment for his testing in the wilderness and then his public ministry. And the decent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is the story of the outpouring of heavenly power as fire, and it is also the story of the birth of the church.
As the Acts of the Apostles, recorded by Luke, begins, Christ speaks to the disciples at the time of his ascension into heaven, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). What would this receiving of power look like? The disciples returned to Jerusalem to wait, and they devoted themselves to prayer. They were surely uncertain about the future and uncertain about how to understand the past. Then, in Acts, Luke tells the mighty story of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the day of Pentecost. It was the culmination of the Feast of Weeks, fifty days after Passover, and Jews came from many countries on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Luke tells us that there were devout Jews from every nation on earth living in Jerusalem, for in the Jewish liturgical calendar, the Feast of Weeks celebrated another outpouring of the divine, the giving of the Torah on Sinai. It is not surprising that the Christian story of Divine empowerment is layered upon the story of the decent of divine power on Sinai.
“And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind,’ Luke writes. “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit, they said, gave them the ability” (Acts 2:3-4). The people who had gathered in Jerusalem also heard this sound, this “windrush.” They listened and were amazed. Hearing about God’s deeds of power, each in language they could understand, they said to one another, “What does this mean?” From that decisive event, a dozen discouraged, frightened men and women found the courage to launch a movement that would spread throughout the Roman world. This flaming shower of the Spirit did not lead simply to individual transformation, it gave birth to a community.
The term Pentecost today calls up the image of Pentecostal churches, with their emphasis on Spirit-filled prayer, including speaking in tongues, which certainly repeats in a way that first Pentecost. I want to reclaim another aspect of Pentecost, which is the experience of the worldwide Christian community of many languages, faces, and cultures. At Pentecost, it is to the community that the Spirit is given, breathed, showered down like flames on high. As Paul puts it, “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…and we were all made to drink of one Spirit (I Cor.12:13). The living power of the Spirit, then, drives Christians today to discover the unity of the Holy Spirit and what it means to belong together as the church, not just within one small isolated community, but throughout the world.
After all, it was not unintelligible speech that those speakers-in-tongues spoke at the great Pentecost event. They spoke languages, all the languages of the earth. “We hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God” said the foreigners. The message of Pentecost is not of ecstatic utterance, but of the importance of hearing the Good News in every land, in every tongue. The love of God is not a family affair, nor is it in any way exclusive, it is translatable, it is news for everyone. In symbolic terms, Pentecost reverses the linguistic confusion of Babel. Those of various tongues can suddenly understand one another. And the gift of that understanding, whether among Christians who speak many languages and come from many cultures, or between Christians, Muslims, and Hindus, is the kind of miracle Christians can only refer to as a gift of the Spirit.
Christians do not have a single, fixed story in telling about the Holy Spirit in the same way they have the story of the stable and the angels, Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee. The stories of the touch of the Spirit are as many as there are individuals and communities. The Holy Spirit perpetually reminds us of God’s mystery and complexity. It is also a radical reminder of God’s ineluctable freedom. Though we may glimpse God in the Face of Jesus, we do not truly understand or comprehend God. Pentecost sets it all on fire.
The image of the bird, the dove, is the most substantial icon of the Spirit. That which we Christians call the Spirit is as intimate and abiding as our breath, as elusive as the wind, as powerful and consuming as fire, and as surprising and mysterious as a sudden sense of presence.
Although the Spiritdove may seem tame enough caught in midair in the icon or in the stained glass of a church, the Holy Spirit is not tame. She can hover protectively, and she also can soar. As one Spirit song puts it, “She comes sailing on the wind, her wings flashing in the sun, on a journey just begun, she flies on.” The flight of a bird is the image of freedom, and the Spirit of God sails free. The bird is also an image of gentile comfort. The Psalmist who prays for shelter under the feathers of God’s wings evokes protection of mother bird gathering he downy young under her wings. In William Blake’s line drawing of the Holy Spirit, an immense bird stretches her wingspan over two figures, the Father doubled over and gathering up the crucified Christ. The hovering, encompassing presence has a wingspan that reaches out over and beyond suffering and death.
It is clear in the New Testament that the Spirit is a gift, not a reward. The decent of the Spirit upon Jesus during his baptism in the Jordan, often depicted as a dove wings outspread sailing downward toward him, comes before his initiatory period of testing in the wilderness, not after. In most initiation sequences, one would expect the order to be reversed; after testing and trial, one is confirmed with a cloak of blessing. But the empowerment of the Spirit is not earned, it is freely given.
The freedom made so clear in the winged flight of the Holy Spirit forces Christians to think about the mystery and spiritual life among people of every faith—Buddhist and Muslim, Hindu and Jewish. When we use the term Holy Spirit, we mean the active, creative, energetic, mysterious presence of the one we call God. The Spirit does not read the fine print of the prayer book or the creed. The Spirit, though she gave birth to the church, is not the possession of the church, let alone of its early church fathers or its modern theologians. The Pentecost experience reminds us that the Holy Spirit is, above all, a gift, a fullness, an outpouring. We cannot grasp it, we can only be attentive to it, awaken to it and attest to its presence.
Emphasizing the freedom of the Spirit, however, does not mean that one part of God is cut loose from the Trinity to roam about the world while the other two are left at home in heaven or in the church. On the contrary, on emphasizing the freedom and mystery of the dove and breath, Christians point to the freedom and mystery of the whole of what we mean by God. The Canberra assembly of the World Council of Churches wrote, “The Holy Spirit is at work in ways that pass human understanding: the freedom of the Spirit may challenge and surprise us as we enter into dialogue with people of other faiths. The Gospel of Jesus Christ has taught us the signs and fruit of the Holy Spirit—joy, peace, patience, and faithfulness (Gal. 5). Dialogue challenges us to discern the fruits of the Spirit in the way God deals with all humanity.”
--Diana L. Eck, Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras, Beacon, 2003, pp. 120-135.