Renew the face of the earth


Credit Sebastian Kanczok via Unsplash

‘Send forth your spirit and they shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth.’ These words  from Psalm 104 (103) characterise not only the ancient Jewish view of the Spirit of God annually renewing the face of the natural world with flowering plant life, but also a widespread belief in the activity of a divine Spirit in many religious cultures around the world, both ancient and modern. All life is thereby seen in them as a divine gift of God to a divine creation.

The Hebrew word for ‘spirit’ was ‘ruah’, whose original meaning was ‘breath’ as well as ‘wind’ and so is onomatapoeic. John tells us how Jesus likened the Spirit to the wind that ‘blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going’  (John 3:8), and this explains why Luke described the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost as ‘like the rush of a mighty wind’ (Acts 2:2). In other words the Spirit is identified as the breath of God, both breathing life into all living things, and withdrawn to let them die.

John’s Gospel describes the death of Jesus on the cross with an unusual Greek expression: he ‘handed over his spirit.’ These words imply that the Spirit given him in baptism is being passed on in his death. He reveals to whom the Spirit is being passed in Christ’s resurrection appearance to the gathered apostles when he lays his hands on them.

But for Luke it was not until Pentecost that the gift of the Spirit brings the new life of Christ to the apostles and the scattered people of God. Both evangelists were writing about events that they themselves did not witness, and so they tended to link their narratives with those Jewish traditions which could best illuminate their significance most vividly, and the experiences that the apostolic Church initially identified naturally as ‘the Spirit of Christ’.

This involved a longer and more confused period of time than the Gospels otherwise imply, including the resurrection events after the crucifixion, which could well have originally been argued, misunderstood, and exaggerated before they were sifted to result in the accounts ultimately agreed by the early Church as true and subsequently handed down. Accurate recorded history simply did not exist in the ancient world.

We therefore need to understand why Luke saw the celebration of Pentecost as a particularly significant feast for the manifestation of the presence of the Holy Spirit. The ancient Pentecost began as a harvest thanksgiving celebration with the creative Holy Spirit renewing the face of the earth. It was the traditional date of the original covenant of the Law of Moses given on Mount Sinai. After the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in AD70 this latter aspect of Pentecost was emphasised more exclusively in the synagogues of the Jewish diaspora. It is during this period that Luke wrote his Gospel. 

St Augustine of CanterburyFor Luke, like St Paul and the author of the later Gospel of John, the continuity between the destroyed old Temple and the building up of the ‘new Temple’ of Christ was vitally important. His Gospel begins with the old Temple priest failing to accept and ‘speak’ of John the Baptist, and ends with its rejection of Jesus’ teaching in the Temple Portico of Solomon when he prophesies the Temple’s destruction. His Acts of the Apostles begins by emphasising the rebirth of the Temple in the disciples’ daily worship in the Temple ‘as a body.’  But Luke’s imagery of Pentecost is also clearly influenced by the context of the powerful prophesy of Ezekiel, one of the great Jewish pilgrimage feasts in which dispersed Jews throughout the ancient world travelled up to Jerusalem to worship. ‘For I will take you from the nations…and bring you to your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you…I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you… I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my ways and be careful to observe what I command’ (Ezek 36: 24 et seq).

This idea of God’s re-creation of a new humanity in the resurrection of Christ is most clearly adopted in the letters of St Paul and in Jesus’ conversation about spiritual rebirth in the Gospel of John (John 3:1 -21) which later recasts many of St Paul’s insights in more explicitly Eucharistic imagery as the food of the Word made Flesh within the people of God.

As the lives of our saints have often attested, the Holy Spirit may speak to us in many different ways and through many forms of devotion, some of which were honoured and recognised in the early Church, but came to be neglected and misunderstood in later, often even being wrongly suspected of heresy. While the Church has been strong in its doctrinal discipline, it has too often been weak in discerning the breadth of imagery and variety of spiritual expressions of the presence of the Holy Spirit. The great schism in the Church between the Eastern and Western traditions of Christianity was formally about the Holy Spirit, but were caused largely by the spiritual arrogance of both the Eastern and Western Church leaders, which seriously limited their ability to see or hear where the Holy Spirit was actually calling them.

St Gregory by Matthias StomIn the Western Church great harm was initially done to the mission of the Church in India when the Jesuit missionary, Roberto di Nobili was not allowed by Rome to pursue his Christian teaching through traditional Hindu practices.  This was also done to Matteo Ricci’s Jesuit mission in China. This restrictive thinking sharply contrasts with the much earlier instructions of Pope St Gregory the Great at the beginning of the 7th century to St Augustine and his monks, on their mission to pagan Anglo-Saxon England. Bede tells us how St Augustine was instructed not only to baptise pagans, but also to baptise their good customs and religious practices too. This is why we find so many earlier pagan elements in our great Christian celebrations even today. Great humility is required of us all in our conversations with people of different Christian traditions as well as with those of other faiths. This is exactly the same spirit in which Pope Francis has been exemplifying in praying with Muslims to Our Lady, whom Islam also greatly venerates.

The vital need for humility in seeking the Holy Spirit for unity among Christians is exemplified in the anecdote told by the Venerable Bede, after Pope St Gregory gave St Augustine authority over the surviving British Bishops, who had lost all contact with Rome during the long period of violent Anglo-Saxon incursions into most of what is now England. Augustine decided that he should meet the British bishops to gain their cooperation for his mission, and arranged to have a conference with them.

St Gregory had of course reformed the calendar, changing the date of Easter. The acceptance of this change became the touchstone of acceptance of papal authority and true Catholicism in the western Church. But the British bishops saw no reason why they should change their settled traditions for a Rome that had abandoned them, or for Roman missionaries from their sworn Anglo-Saxon enemies. They consulted a wise old hermit. He said, “If he is a man of God follow him.” They asked, “But how can we tell?” He answered, “The Lord said: Take my yoke and follow me, for I am meek and lowly of heart. If you see this Augustine to be bearing the yoke of Christ, and offering it to you to bear, follow him. But if he is harsh and proud, it follows that he is not from God, and we need not heed his words.” The bishops persisted, “But how can we even know this?” He replied, “Try to make sure that he and his followers arrive first, and if he rises on your approach, you will all know that he is a servant of Christ, and will listen to him obediently. But if he despises you and is not willing to rise in your presence, even though your numbers are greater, you should despise him in return.” Unfortunately Augustine remained seated. What Bede’s story really shows is the arrogance that was shown on both sides. Our arrogance remains the greatest obstacle to the work of the Holy Spirit within us, and the greatest obstacle therefore both to unity and community.

Fr Bob Styles SJ