Published on 29 May 2012
The Day of Pentecost with Holy Baptisms
May 27th, 2012
Archdeacon Ellen Clark-King
Christ Church Cathedral
Click here to listen to an audio MP3 of the sermon
One of the most frequently asked questions by visitors to the cathedral on a Sunday morning is around the creed. Not – thankfully – technical theological probing about the doctrine of the virgin birth or of the two natures of Christ – but just “Did you say ‘she?” Referring, of course, to the way that in this congregation we talk about the Holy Spirit with the female pronoun. Some people ask in worried tones, and explain why they think it’s entirely the wrong thing to do. Others ask with eager enthusiasm delighted to hear exclusively male language for God challenged. One thought I must have a lisp! Today, the day we celebrate the Holy Spirit, it’s worth asking ourselves the question that usually follows from disapprovers and enthusiasts alike – why do you do it?
I love the ‘becauses’ that follow this ‘why?’ They take us into the heart of pneumatic theology – pneumatic not as in drills but as in pneuma, the Greek word for Spirit. And by taking us into the heart of the theology of the Spirit they take us into the heart of God. The God we acknowledge and commit ourselves to at the moment of baptism and whenever we renew our baptismal vows. The God who delights in Anni, Ruby, Samuel and Jemma and in all of us, and invites us all to get to know her better.
So let’s play with three words, each one of which is a ‘because’ to this ‘why?’ – and each one of which is gramatically female. The first of these is ruah, the Hebrew word for spirit. The second is shekinah, the Hebrew word for the dwelling of God with the people. And the third is Sophia, the Greek word for the Wisdom of God which is present at creation and which still dances in humanity. So one fundamental answer to why we say She of the Spirit is that this is the gender we find for the Spirit within our holy writings.
But there is more to it than grammatical gender of ancient languages alone. Explored more fully each of these three female terms take us deep within the reality of who God is. Let’s start where the Bible starts – with ‘ruah’ the Hebrew word for Spirit and breath who breathes over chaos to cause creation. Ruah is the one who creates and re-creates, who shelters the suffering under her wings and who lifts the enslaved on wings of freedom. Ruah is the one who gives birth, the mother of new life. In Psalm 139 she knits together the child in the womb, in John 3 she is the one who births us again into renewed spirit-filled life.
When we speak of God as ruah, as spirit and breath, we speak of a God whose will is to give life, a God who loves and broods over her children with the care of a mother bird, a pregnant, birth-giving God. Ruah invites us to use female metaphors, to speak of the divine from female experiences. Not in order to deny men their own role as life-givers but to allow us a needed and natural place to talk about God in female imagery. After all there haven’t been so many of those that we can afford to let any go by.
This possibility continues with the Hebrew word ‘shekinah’. This female gendered word comes from the Hebrew verb shakhan which means ‘to dwell’ and is used to refer to God’s presence with the people. The shekinah accompanies the people in both joy and grief, whatever they experience she experiences with them. There is a rabbinic story about the shekinah’s grief over the hanging of a guilty man: ‘When a human being suffers what does the Shekinah say? [She says] My head is too heavy for Me, my arm is too heavy for Me. And if God is so grieved over he blood of the wicked that is shed, how much more so over the blood of the righteous.’ Shekinah is the opposite of God as distant or detached – this is God as passionate sister.
But Shekinah takes us even deeper that this. She does not only signify God dwelling with the people but also She-Who-Dwells-Within – God within us as well as God compassionately accompanying us. So pneumatic theology drills down to a God who is compassionate companion and deeper still to a God who is at home within the human heart. God as Shekinah is even closer to us than a loving friend: she is the breath within our bodies, the courage of our hearts and the longing we experience for intimacy, justice and peace.
And this characteristic of the Holy Spirit as dwelling within humanity shines out just as clearly in the third female image – Spirit as Wisdom – hokmah in Hebrew, Sophia in Greek and sapientia in Latin – all female terms. Wisdom is God at the heart of all creation, animating and inspiring the world. As it says in the Wisdom of Solomon: “wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things.” She “pervades and penetrates all things” – God is not removed and separate but deeply present in creation. Wisdom calls all people to seek her because in finding her they will both find God and their own true nature.
Wisdom/Sophia in the Hebrew Scriptures is the way of speaking of God at work in the world. She is pictured as female but as having a far from traditionally feminine role. In the words of theologian Kilian McDonnell: “In the divine economy it is not the feminine person who remains hidden and at home. She is God in the world, moving, stirring up, revealing, interceding. It is she who calls out, sanctifies and animates the church … She is the life-giver who raises men [and women] from the dead with the life of the coming age.” When we turn our attention to the Holy Spirit we turn our attention to God at work in the world, with us and within us; the God who never abandons or leaves us. It’s a shame she only gets one Sunday of the year for herself – but it’s great that our creed inspires visitors to consider her more deeply.
So if you ever get asked the ‘why do you say she’ question here’s how you might answer: We speak of the Holy Spirit as she in the creed because our holy writings invite us to do so. They remind us that God is to be imaged in female as well as male terms – that a church which only says ‘he’ is a church which is in danger of losing touch with who God has revealed herself to be.
The Holy Spirit who dwells with and loves humanity is at the heart of our understanding of God. She is at the heart of God’s interaction with us: compassionate companion and divine presence deep within. She is the one who danced at creation and who continues to rejoice in the inhabited world and to delight in the human race. She is ruah, our deepest breath, she is shekinah, the one who dwells with and within, she is wisdom, the one who dances creation and who permeates all our being.
Let us finish with a hymn of praise to this Holy Spirit, this life within all life, this face of God as life-giving mother, companioning sister and breath of all being. The words are from Hildegaard of Bingen:
“I, the highest and fiery power, have kindled every living spark and I have breathed out nothing that can die … I flame above the beauty of the fields, I shine in the waters; in the sun, moon and stars, I burn. And by means of the airy wind, I stir everything into quickness with a certain invisible life which sustains all … I, the fiery power, lie hidden in these things, and they blaze from me.
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