“We Never Even Heard There Is a Holy Spirit!”
A reflection on Genesis 1:1-5, Acts 19:1-7, and Mark 1:4-11 by Dr. Laura Grimes
In deciding which Scriptures to reflect on for this feast of the Baptism of Jesus, when we baptize new Christians and renew our own baptismal covenant, I looked at both the Book of Common Prayer lections and those in the Revised Common Lectionary. Not surprisingly, both contain the same Gospel reading: since it is year B, Mark’s account of the broader ministry of John the Baptist followed by his baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan. “The one who is more powerful than I is coming….he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” and “You are my Son, the Beloved; my favor rests on you.” The Holy Spirit, who gave life to Jesus in his mother’s womb, now descends again in the form of a dove and fills him with an even more intense knowledge of God’s love….And this propels Jesus into action….He showers the same Holy Spirit on God’s beloved people through his prayer in the desert, his radical teaching, and his tireless healing. When we open ourselves to being ever more deeply immersed in the Holy Spirit, we too will come to know ourselves and everyone as God’s beloved children, and be increasingly transformed with the ability to pray deeply, speak prophetically, and act compassionately.
In the end, I chose the RCL lections as the focus largely because of the Acts passage, which never fails to make me smile. Paul meets the citizens of Ephesus who have received only John’s baptism, asks if they have received the Holy Spirit, and they reply that they have never even heard there is a Holy Spirit! Feminist theologians, and those working on the revitalization of Trinitarian theology, have often wryly commented that the church today, and many modern Christians are like those believers in Ephesus—we seem never to have heard of the Holy Spirit, the “Cinderella” of theology. The Holy Spirit is an elusive divine shapechanger imaged in our tradition not just as a dove—or eagle—but as wind, as fire, now living water, as sweet perfume, now as a dove—is virtually invisible because she dwells so deeply within us. She blows where she wills, shakes up received certainties, and resists hierarchical and pietistic attempts to confine and limit her action to the ordained, the loudly faithful, those with a defined set of spiritual gifts or practices--even to Christians….No wonder that she is so often forgotten, except on Pentecost and at confirmation time.
Sadly, the first RCL lection for the day reveals that the compilers of the New Revised Standard version of the Bible, generally considered the most gender-sensitive of mainstream translations, also seem to never have heard of the Holy Spirit. Relying on the fact that ruach in Hebrew can mean breath or wind as well as spirit, in the Genesis lection they translate the words ruach elohim—traditionally understood as the Spirit of God—as wind: “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” This is a lovely picture, and it does recall the wind which swept the Red/Reed Sea all night to make a way for the Israelites escaping Egypt—but it depends on another mistranslation, of the verb rahapl, which is almost universal in Scripture translations. Most versions say something like “the Spirit of God moved over the face of the waters,” though occasionally one will say “hovered”—which is perhaps closer to the true meaning of the word, but in one commentary I saw inspired the, to me, unfortunate metaphor of a helicopter! Rahapl, however, has a specific and precise meaning which is occasionally mentioned in commentaries but unaccountably left out of translation decisions. It is the word that means, very specifically, a mother bird brooding over her young: to incubate the eggs as they hatch, to protect and nurture the newborn chicks, and, as in Deuteronomy 32:11, to catch and bear them up on her wings as she teaches them to soar. If the NRSV translators had correctly translated rahapl, with its clear indications action by a personal, intimate, and loving source, perhaps they would have also translated ruach elohim in a way more in harmony with the message of the priestly writer….The Spirit of God, or the breath of God, or even the wind of, rather than from God. “The Spirit of God brooded over the waters”….Right from the start, this illuminates a vision of God’s creation as relational, and of God as abundant and nurturing love creating a diverse and very good world, and humankind—male and female—in her own good and loving image.