The following is excerpted from chapter 6 of Learning the Language of the Fields: Tilling and Keeping as Christian Vocation (Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 2006).
Readers of the New Testament might be led to believe that any discussion of the Holy Spirit must begin with the promise that Jesus gave to his disciples at his ascension, a hope that came to fulfillment on the day of Pentecost. As Luke describes the event, the disciples were all gathered in Jerusalem, praying in one place, when
suddenly from heaven came the sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them the ability (Acts 2:2-4).So begins the story of "the dispensation of the Spirit," as it has been referred to in some circles. And there is a certain appeal to the narrative, filled as it is with supernatural occurrences and the implied promise that this same power of God can still work in similar ways among the faithful today. But what is often overlooked in many discussions of the Holy Spirit is the fact that this sometimes neglected person of the Trinity is by no means a latecomer on the scene of salvation history. On the contrary, the Spirit (ruah) of God was present in the very beginning of time, hovering over the face of the waters, brooding, as it were, like a mother hen over her chicks. It was this divine breath that formed the command "let there be," calling forth order and light out of the murky depths of chaos.
Thus the advent of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost is merely a continuation of her creative and sustaining work as attested throughout the pages of the Hebrew Bible. There the Spirit is seen as divine power and authority coming to rest on the anointed kings of Israel, a sign of God’s good pleasure in God’s chosen. The prophets also describe occasions on which they are seized by this same spirit and compelled to bring the Creator’s will to presence through their poetic utterances and acts. "The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me," writes Third Isaiah, "because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed..." (Isaiah 61:1). But God’s immanence in the world is also affirmed in much less dramatic ways, particularly in those scriptural books and other writings that comprise the Wisdom Tradition. Here the creative and sustaining spirit of God is celebrated as working, even playing, in and through all things. The Psalmist makes it clear that there is indeed a language to be learned here, and words to be heard, as the spirit of the Holy One of Israel whispers, dances, and sings in every facet of the created world.
The heavens are telling the gloryLet those who have ears to hear, the Psalmist seems to say, acknowledge the presence of God’s spirit in all things, whether human or nonhuman, animate or inanimate.
and the firmament proclaims
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there
words; their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through
all the earth,
And their words to the end of
the world (19:1-4a).
Having said this, it is important to recall Martin Buber’s assertion that the Eternal You can be encountered in every aspect of the natural world, but only in a way that is "beneath language." This does not mean, however, that what is being communicated by the nonhuman world – whether in the firmament, or much closer to home in the eyes of a dappled mare – is altogether beyond the pale of our comprehension. Rather, it is one of the fundamental responsibilities of each and every one of us to bring our admittedly rare encounters with the Eternal You to presence through our creative acts, and this for the good of the community yearning for a word of hope, for a sense of connectedness.
We are called, in other words, to give voice to the unheard voices. Our creations toward this end – our poetry, visual art, music – become the lenses through which our human community comes to recognize and understand value and meaning in its particular place, the means by which we acknowledge ourselves as characters in an ecologically enacted narrative.
What has been tragically forgotten over the millennia is that one of the most integral aspects of our human vocation is the careful listening required for perceiving these voices "going out through all the earth and to the end of the world." Simply put, the integrity of the body of Christ relies on the willingness and ability of its human members to affirm their most basic calling as tillers and keepers, imagers of God, by engaging in this new form of liberating "tongue-speaking." We must endeavor to know and proclaim faithfully the language of the fields coming to us from the depths our place.
Though much has been made of the "pouring out" of God’s Spirit on the day of Pentecost, it is instructive for us to consider a less conspicuous account of a similar event recorded in the Gospel of John. Here the Holy Spirit is bestowed on the followers of Jesus, not from the heavens above with surging winds and descending tongues of fire, but in a manner vaguely reminiscent of the Yahwist’s creation narrative (Gen. 2:4ff). Here the Spirit comes to the disciples intimately, from the very mouth of the risen Lord himself, who greets them face to face and offers a word of hope. As John relates the tradition,
When it was evening on... the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit" (John 20:19-22).Read in the light of the Yahwist narrative, we cannot help but draw parallels here between the old Adam and this "new creation," these believers, the body of Christ, whose vocation in the world is exactly that of their primal predecessor. The difference, however, is that here God’s creative and redemptive presence – God's sustaining breath – awakens and inspires the disciples in a much more dynamic way. The same spirit (ruah) who hovered over the face of the deep in the beginning, who invigorated the prophets of old and for millennia set creation to dance, now also quickens the body of the faithful, broken and inadequate though they are, and provides a renewed understanding of their most fundamental calling. The curse of the garden is reversed and the connection with the earth is renewed. This is the very event for which the creation has been waiting with eager longing, groaning in travail until the children of God would once again be revealed (Rom. 8:19).
Before his ascension, Jesus, like Yahweh in the garden before him, creates the conditions for the possibility of a radically new Kingdom on earth: he breathes the breath of life into the "new Adam," the church, and grants them peace, not so much as a parting blessing, but as a charge to the commencement of their liberating work in the world.
It is this same breath of God, rising from the depths of the Eternal You through the body of Christ – that is, through the human community living in relationship with our ecological context – who continues to energize and inspire us today. The Eternal You, who is intimated in the darkness of every aspect of our place, can be encountered and communicated by and to those who share our life-world, and this through the creative movement of the Spirit herself. But the breath of God will not illuminate us in the same manner in every time and place, so our "tongue-speaking," the creations of our hearts and minds that bring the eternal to presence in this place, will also be as varied as the bioregions that make up our planet.
There is, then, no single language of the fields to be learned; to suggest as much, as some creation theologians seem to do, is to fall victim to the very global thinking that is one of the sources of our ecological embarrassments today. The spirit of the Eternal You, breathed through the body of Christ in its various ecological incarnations, creates a melody that can be heard in different tones and keys in each bioregion across the world. It is our calling as God’s "imagers" first to hear the music, and then to keep the song alive, to sustain the unique character – the integrity – of our biotic community, and thus affirm the liberating movement of the Spirit there.
Questions for Further Discussion
1. Marc Chagall's painting above, entitled I and the Village (1910), represents his experience of his boyhood community in Russia. If you were to paint an image of the way the Spirit lives and breathes in your own community, what would it look like? What would be some of the essential features of your painting?
2. Reflect on the juxtaposition in this pericope of the two "bodies of Christ," i.e., Jesus and the disciples who have just received the Spirit of God. What is the significance of Thomas -- a member of the latter body -- reaching out to touch Jesus' wounds?
3. I have often told my students that the Holy Spirit is "the red-headed step-child of the Holy Trinity," by which I mean that she has been sorely overlooked in the history of Christian theology, at least in comparison to the Father and the Son. How is the Holy Spirit represented and perceived in your theological tradition or in your church parish?
4. Does it offend you when pastors and theologians (like me) refer to the Holy Spirit as "she." Do you think this is justified?