Sunday, 31 May 2009

Day of the Dove

As it is, in the Christian calendar, the feast of Pentecost, some musings on the gender of "spirit" in the Old and New Testaments. The day of Pentecost was when the New Testament (Acts of the Apostles) tells the story of the spirit of god descending on the early Christians in Jerusalem. "Spirit" is invariably rendered male, but should this always be the case?

In the old English calendar, by the way, this day used to be called "Whitsunday", a condensation of "White Sunday" probably named because of the custom of the newly baptised to wear white robes on this feast day. Pentecost is a Greek term for the Jewish festival of "Shavuoth" which has been revived as the old English ecclesiastical calendar names decline from everyday use.

My Wiccan friends tell me that they consider the sun male, the moon female - in order words, a sun god, a moon goddess, which is certainly a picture from part of the pagan world, and which fits well with Wiccan Duothesim. The Romans had Apollo as a sun god, Diana as the Moon Goddess. Yet this was not universal. The ancient Celts, for instance, appear to have had the sun and moon as twin sisters, both female, but with the ability to take on male aspects.

Even the Hebrews, with a very patriarchal idea of God, nevertheless have female imagery creeping in; their god is described as a mother tenderly gathering her children. Other aspects of the feminine come with the period between Old and New Testaments, when Wisdom becomes almost an aspect of God, and yet wisdom is described in almost exclusively feminine imagery.

Interestingly, the Hebrew word for Spirit, or Breath, is "ruach", which is also feminine. In the first Genesis story, the spirit of God "broods over the waters", which fits in well with female imagery. Even in the New Testament, the Greek for Spirit is "pneuma", which has no gender, and it is only in translation to Latin "spiritus" that it is rendered male. In fact, our translations are very deceptive in this manner:

There are many places in the New Testament where the Holy Spirit is referred to as he, but in all instances except three the Greek word for he is not actually in the Greek. Commonly Greek leaves out the subject pronoun and, in these references to the Holy Spirit, implies by the verbal ending that the subject is he, she, or it. All of the translations that I have seen use he. She or it could have been used instead.(1)
So that when we look at  John 14: 17

"even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you."

There is no "him" in the Greek; it is an addition by the translator. In fact, "the pronouns are implied most of the time, but there's one pronoun in there where the gender is clear, which is the one translated "whom". In Greek, it's neuter."(2)

So in contrast to the excesses of masculine imagery used in Christian worship, here is an interesting hymn - used in worship today by Christians - which explores the idea of the spirit as conceived primarily in female imagery (3).

Enemy of Apathy

She sits like a bird, brooding on the waters,
Hovering on the chaos of the world's first day;
She sighs and she sings, mothering creation,
Waiting to give birth to all the Word will say.

She wings over earth, resting where she wishes,
Lighting close at hand or soaring through the skies;
She nests in the womb, welcoming each wonder,
Nourishing potential hidden to our eyes.

She dances in fire, startling her spectators,
Waking tongues of ecstasy where dumbness reigned;
She weans and inspires all whose hearts are open,
Nor can she be captured, silenced or restrained.

For she is the Spirit, one with God in essence,
Gifted by the Saviour in eternal love;
She is the key opening the scriptures,
Enemy of apathy and heavenly dove.


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