The Holy Spirit, Colleen Shay, 2009, Fine Art America.
Jesus said: [The Father] will give you another Advocate to be with you always,
the Spirit of truth. John 14:16-17.
God’s Holy Spirit figures strongly in all three of today’s readings. This is not surprising as the event which changed everything, Pentecost, gets nearer. So perhaps a look at the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity is appropriate at this time. Clearly, this Person is the most enigmatic of the three. It is easy to understand God as Father and Son, but the Spirit, appearing in the gospels as like a dove at the baptism of Jesus, and in the Acts of the Apostles as like flames of fire at Pentecost, is more challenging. As one Japanese gentleman contemplating Christian conversion supposedly said, “I understand the idea of honorable Father and honorable Son, but not the idea of the honorable Bird”. Quite understandable. The first letter of St. John states bluntly, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). This gives love a very special quality then, so powerful that it is divine, part of the Godhead. Indeed, so strong that it has its own identity. As Jesus said at the conclusion of Matthew’s gospel, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” (Matthew 28:19 – see below). Now note I am describing the Holy Spirit as “it”, which makes God’s Spirit inanimate, the opposite of the truth. The English language comes into full force here as a consequence. To “animate” the Spirit, we have to use a personal pronoun, either “he” or “she”, and I’m stepping into deep water here…
As you know, all the original Christian texts, our New Testament, were written in Greek, which was the universal language at the time of Jesus (as English is today’s universal language). The quotation above, from the last verses of Mattrew’s gospel, is this in the original: “πορευθέντες οὖν μαθητεύσατε πάντα τὰ ἔθνη, βαπτίζοντες αὐτοὺς εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ πατρὸς καὶ τοῦ υἱοῦ καὶ τοῦ ἁγίου πνεύματος…” Now the last two words, ἁγίου πνεύματος, hagiou pneumatos, mean Holy Spirit. We get the English words hagiography and pneumatic from those Greek words, one referring to holiness, and the other to air. In Greek, pneuma (and in Greek, as in French, the p is pronounced: p-neuma), means air or wind, and that is the word the original writers of the New Testament used for the Holy Spirit. Fine, except that in Greek, that word is neuter. It did not seem to matter back then. When the Greek text was translated into Latin, which had a huge influence on the eventual English translations, the Greek word was translated as Spiritus, from which we get our word Spirit, and in Latin it is masculine. Most Latin words ending in -us are masculine (words ending in -a are usually feminine). Hence Spiritus was “he”. All well and good, until you dig a little deeper, to the language Jesus actually spoke, which was Aramaic, closely related to Hebrew. The Hebrew word for Spirit is רוּחַ “ruach” pronounced Ruahh (as in the Scottish word loch). Now here’s the point. In Hebrew and Aramaic, that word is feminine. In the first verses of the Book of Genesis, God’s ruach hovers over the waters of chaos prior to order arriving, firstly in the creation of light. Then, later, God’s ruach entered the man formed of clay, and God’s ruach gave him life (Genesis 2:7). So there are two meanings here, both wind and breath, but the word is feminine. Clearly, I am taking the Spirit, the ruach of God in the Old Testament as a prefiguration of the revelation by Jesus that God’s Holy Spirit is a person, one of the community of three in the one Godhead. Hence, for Jesus, God’s Spirit would always be thought of as “she”, described as such in Scripture. Now read today’s first reading and substitute “she” for “it” when referring to the Holy Spirit near the end of the passage, and see what that one small difference makes to our English-language minds and hearts. Remember that in other European languages, the gender of nouns is almost meaningless, so there is no controversy. But for us, gender applies directly and clearly to things masculine, feminine and neuter. It actually means something! One more note; the Hebrew word for wisdom, חוכמה or Chokmâh, used when talking of God’s wisdom, is also feminine.
Why have I done all this? Well, firstly, God transcends all our thinking of gender, but we do not think as God thinks, so thinking of God’s Holy Spirit as “she” makes the Trinity truly universal. The Father and the Spirit of Love emanate out as the Son who was given to us out of love, an act of love so inconceivable as to be overwhelming. And the Passion of the Son is the absolute proof of that love of us sinful people that in spite of what happened, we are still loved beyond all telling. Yet those first disciples, perhaps already knowing all that, were still terrified of the authorities who might arrest and kill them all. They were still in hiding, waiting for the worst to happen. It was only when She, God’s Holy Spirit, came upon them that things changed forever. So meditate on this line in today’s gospel: “[The Father] will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows him.” and substitute “her” for that last word and examine the reaction within yourself…
God’s Holy Spirit, Catholic Answers.
Reflections on the following Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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