Gustav Mahler got it right. For me, the opening chorus of his 8th Symphony, the Symphony of a Thousand, is in all its Teutonic majesty a nearly perfect tribute to the eruption of the Holy Spirit into the lives of the Disciples (and the world). The text of the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus is most likely by Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury who led the resistance against King John in the 13th century, but the stunning music is pure Mahler.
“Descent” is too tame a word for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Neither words nor music can contain the power and beauty of God’s spiritual presence in the world (though music may come closer). From the beginning, the interruption of the Spirit caused upheaval and even confusion, as Luke relates in the Acts of the Apostles. And yet the Spirit remains largely unknown to many Christians, a nebulous “third” to the Father and the Son, and for whom wind and flame seem somehow to be the most apt metaphors.
About 20 years ago, when I was teaching at Loyola University, I got it into my head to offer a course on the Holy Spirit. It seems that no one had done that before, which is a little odd, since most Christians accept that the Holy Spirit is one of the three divine persons of the Trinity. A special study booklet had even been published from Rome as the culminating volume in a series leading to the Great Jubilee Year 2000. Two years later, when I was invited to be the Aquinas Lecturer at Emory University in Atlanta, I was asked by the director of Candler, the Methodist Divinity School, to offer a course there too. The reason was that no one had done so before. As it happened, a visiting professor from Korea offered one about the same time, and we both had packed classrooms. I still occasionally offer the course at Dominican University, but undergraduate interest today seems much more muted.
The situation remains remarkably different among Korean Christians. There, however, the emphasis is more active and dynamic than theoretical, where theologians (many of them women) represent the Trinity as a great round-dance, building on the literal meaning of the ancient Christian notion of perichoresis. The reason for the neglect in western theology seems to lie in the difficulty of imagining who or what the Holy Spirit is, despite the many references in the New Testament and among the sermons and writings of early Christians from the fourth century to the time of Stephen Langton and Thomas Aquinas.
We are so used to seeing the Holy Spirit portrayed by the symbol of a dove because of the descriptions of the baptism of Jesus that we automatically insert one in our images of what happened on that strange and wonderful morning. But Luke says nothing about a dove. He speaks of wind and fire, tongues of flame that appeared over the disciples’ heads. Nor should we think of “tongues” here too physically, for in the very next sentence, Luke tells how the disciples began speaking in “other” tongues — different or foreign languages. And a few sentences later, he describes how the many linguistically different people gathered outside heard them speaking in their native tongues — languages that ranged from Persia to Egypt, Turkey, and faraway Rome.
Pentecost is about God’s wild and creative energy, about life and unexpected renewal. And it is especially about tongues — languages, and especially the language of prophecy. For the Holy Spirit is above all the Spirit of Prophecy, the Spirit of Jesus himself, sent from God to lead, guide, and guard his followers as they spread the gospel to every corner of the world. The Holy Spirit is the name we give to our personal experience of God in the real and daily events of our lives. It is the name we place on the ways God acts through us to renew the face of the earth.
In today’s world, it is well to remember that Creation itself is attributed to the Spirit – Veni CREATOR Spiritus! For that reason I am convinced that the Holy Spirit is animating the prophetic movement today to protect, revive, and sustain that Creation. More than ever before, environmental protection is a work of the Spirit! Here a very effective guide is the encyclical of Pope Francis, Laudato sí, which would greatly repay another careful reading.
Come Holy Spirit, help us renew the face of the Earth!