Many years ago, during my Junior Year of college, I read Hilaire Belloc’s deliciously discerning book, The Path to Rome. Written in 1902 it recounts his pilgrimage on foot (for the most part, at least) from his hometown in France to the Eternal City. Belloc embarked upon the journey because he had been enchanted by a lovely statue of Our Lady which he discovered in his parish church. A work of beauty spurred and sustained his path to Rome.
The same year that I read Belloc, I too came upon a work of art that has guided and enriched my own journey. It has not been a physical trek of a thousand kilometers, but it has had its own small share of adventure. The image that has accompanied me for more than sixty years is that of a splendid stone carving in the Basilica of Saint Mary Magdalene in Vézelay, France. One enters the twelfth-century church into a porch area to find, above the main entrance door, a monumental depiction of the risen, ascending Christ from whose outsized hands the rays of the Holy Spirit pour forth upon the apostles.
This image of Christ the Giver of the Spirit strikes me as particularly Johannine in inspiration. In my own pondering it seems to draw upon three crucial passages of John’s Gospel.
In chapter seven John recounts Jesus’ presence in Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles, teaching in the Temple and disputing with the Pharisees. On the last day of the Feast, he solemnly proclaims that those who believe in him will receive living water. The narrator clarifies the meaning: “Now [Jesus] said this about the Spirit which those who believed in him were to receive.” But then, in one of the Gospel’s most enigmatic passages, John adds: “for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (Jn 7:39). The Greek is starker still: “there was not yet Spirit!”
The reader is thus primed to anticipate an intimate nexus between Jesus’ “glorification” and the bestowal of the Spirit. But the ongoing scandal of the Gospel (for Jew, Greek, and each of us) is that the hour of Jesus’ glory is the hour of the Cross. All the wondrous “signs” Jesus works in the course of the Gospel – from the wedding feast at Cana to the raising of Lazarus – are consummated and surpassed in his “hour of glory.” Hence, we read at the end of the Passion Account: “Jesus said, ‘It is fulfilled.’ And, bowing his head, he handed over [paredōken] the Spirit” (Jn 19:30).
The fruit of this “handing over” of the Spirit – the deepest meaning of “tradition” in the Church – is further shown in the appearance of the risen One on “the evening of the first day of the week.”
Jesus encounters his dispirited and fearful disciples, bringing peace and forgiveness. And “he breathed upon them, saying: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’!” (Jn 20:22). As an ancient prayer of the liturgy (prayed as the “Prayer over the Gifts” at Mass on Saturday before Pentecost) exults: “It is the Holy Spirit himself who is the forgiveness of sin!”
These three crucial passages – not yet Spirit, releasing the Spirit, sharing the Spirit – form the backdrop to the Vézelay sculpture and to our own appropriation of Pentecostal faith. The image evokes aesthetically what the Gospel realizes narratively: drawing the hearer or beholder into a life-giving relation to the living Lord, inviting him or her to abide in Christ, and, in the power of the Spirit, to share the Gospel for the life of the world.
The risen Lord’s breathing of the Spirit, his in-spiriting his disciples, recalls the depiction in Genesis of the Lord God “forming man from the dust of the ground and breathing into his nostrils the breath of life” (Gen 2:7). Tragically, beginning with Adam and Eve, life in the Spirit was rejected, and relation ruptured. But God’s Spirit stood ever ready to repair the breach, inspiring friends of God and prophets, until, in the fulness of time, God sent One who is more than friend or prophet, but the only begotten Son. Jesus, the Son of God’s own heart, is not only bearer, but bestower of the Spirit.
Thus, on the Eighth Day, the risen Jesus inaugurates the new creation, the true novus ordo seclorum. The entire New Testament is permeated with this sense of the new thing that God has accomplished through Jesus Christ, crucified by human beings, but raised to new life and now seated at God’s right hand.
But there is yet more. For humankind is not merely the recipient of God’s creative and redemptive action. We are called to active engagement, to be participants in the very life of God. We are called to communion [koinōnia] with God, and inseparably, to communion with our brothers and sisters in the Spirit.
In his profound Commentary on Gospel of John, Cyril of Alexandria underscores the ground and scope of Pentecostal transformation:
“Christ sends the Spirit, who is both the Father’s Spirit and his own, to dwell in each of us. And that Spirit, being one and indivisible, unites those who are distinct from each other as individuals, and causes them all to be gathered into unity in himself.”
Cyril continues: “Joined to the Holy Spirit, our nature is transformed so that we are no longer merely human, but also sons of God, spiritual men and women, because we have received a share in the divine nature. We are all one, therefore, in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. We are one in mind and holiness, we are one through our communion in the sacred flesh of Christ, and through our sharing in the one Holy Spirit.”
As Cyril perceives, the language of “Spirit” in the New Testament is a language of relationship and mutuality. It is a language of persons in relation: whether the persons of the Trinity – Father and Son related in the communion of the Holy Spirit – or of believers called to that fulness of personhood which is communion. Indeed, the God of trinitarian love desires and inspires lovers who share God’s own passion for communion.
*Image: Pentecost by El Greco, c. 1600 [Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain] And, below, the Vézelay Christ: