The Spirit as midwife

by Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

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Pentecost has often been described as the birthday of the church. Perhaps it might be more accurate to refer to Pentecost as the celebration of the Spirit, who, like a midwife, tends carefully to the birth of the community of believers.


Solemnity of Pentecost
Acts 2:1-11
Psalm 104
1 Corinthians 12:3-7, 12-13
John 20:19-23

The Spirit is there to assist as the church labors to witness to God's truth, justice, peace and love. There to encourage when the going becomes difficult. There to comfort and strengthen when weakness sets in and quitting looks tempting. There to remind the community of its commitment to support and protect life, all life, from the womb to the tomb. There to challenge the community to rise above its smallness. There to draw the attention of the community to the needs of God's poor ones. There to breathe and pray within every one of God's own. There to keep all eyes on the goal of preaching the good news to all, without exception and without stinting. There to light a fire in the belly of those who have grown weary and disillusioned. There to heighten the sensitivities of the well-off and worry-free toward the plight of the lost and the wounded. There to shed light in the darkness. There to be the love that empowers all we are, all we do, all we become.

Like a great and holy enabler, it is the Spirit who aids us in interpreting who Jesus is and who empowers us to follow in Jesus' ways. Hans Urs von Balthasar once explained that the human mind, on its own, is inadequate to understand Jesus and God (Does Jesus Know Us? Do We Know Him? Ignatius Press, 1983). Jesus' disciples only understood fully when he breathed this Spirit into them after his resurrection (Gospel), and the assembled church when it received the Spirit at Pentecost (first reading).

Paul put it simply but beautifully when he said, "What person knows what pertains to a person except the spirit of that person that is within? Similarly, no one knows what pertains to God except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit that is from God so that we may understand the things freely given us by God. And we speak about them, not with words taught by human wisdom but with words taught by the Spirit" (1 Corinthians 2:11-13).

So vitally necessary is the Spirit for the life and mission of the church that this great gift of God to us is often compared to water. The Spirit is "poured out into our hearts" (Romans 5:5) and "we are given to drink of the one Spirit" (second reading). It was the Spirit who was the "living water" promised by Jesus at Jacob's well; this Spirit become a spring within us, welling up to eternal life (John 4:10-14).

As Pastor Linda McKinnish Bridges has pointed out, when that Spirit was poured forth by the risen Jesus, it signified a revolutionary new beginning, a beginning that forever changed the face of religion yet maintained the symbols of the old era (The Abingdon Preaching Annual, Abingdon Press, 2000). With a nod to Alfred North Whitehead, McKinnish Bridges said that any lasting revolution will revere the sacred symbols of the past, all the while ruthlessly revising them. For the Jesus movement, which was evolving into an organized church through the efforts of the Holy Spirit, the sacred symbols of the past were a rich Jewish scriptural heritage and a lively liturgy. These were not ignored but became a basis for the new tradition we call Christianity.

With the grace afforded by the Spirit, the church continues to revere the old and ruthlessly revise so as to keep the church pertinent to the world in which it is to be salt, light and leaven. Surely, this was the intent of the Second Vatican Council, whose members were challenged to open the windows of their minds and hearts and allow the Holy Spirit to blow them in the direction already plotted by Jesus.

That same Spirit continues to blow, empowering the church to speak -- not in a language long dead, but as it did on that first Pentecost in a language that can be understood by all peoples, everywhere. Peace be with you. We are one body. We share one Spirit. Amen, Alleluia.

[Patricia Sánchez holds a master's degree in literature and religion of the Bible from a joint degree program at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York.]

A version of this story appeared in the May 23-June 5, 2014 print issue under the headline: The Spirit as midwife.

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