As we pray this Pentecost Sunday, “Send forth your Spirit and renew the face of the earth,” we might well invoke the Spirit, while acknowledging the astronomical changes in our understanding of God’s creation: “Renew the face of the cosmos”—of which we are a part (not the whole).
Genesis 1:1: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.
The narrative of creation in the Book of Genesis fills the imagination with images of the original formlessness of Earth. Now, in an era when the vastness of the universe has been shown through powerful electronic instrumentation, imagination and words fail. Contemporary simulations show the contours of planets tens of thousands of light years distant, and cameras simulate the rush of the viewer on Earth past numberless astral objects in limitless space.
I think back to the account of Copernicus, in Dava Sobel’s A More Perfect Heaven, with his fixed instruments and mathematical calculations in the mid-sixteenth century and well before the invention of the telescope, as he located the position of the Earth and other planets in relation to the Sun. How, over the centuries since then, the growing knowledge of the size and complexity of the universe casts light on a cosmos ever expanding—and an Earth more diminutive.
And yet, the picture of original creation echoes on a human scale in interventions of the Spirit as told in the Gospels. Early on, Mary is overshadowed by the Spirit. At the Jordan, the Spirit hovers over Jesus.
Most powerfully, after rising from the dead, Jesus visits the apostles (John 20: 21): ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so, I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’
Most striking of all, on Pentecost Sunday we recall one moment in recorded history, a narrative of a new creation, when the Spirit moves over a small Earth-bound human gathering. Darkness is illuminated, stillness stirred, life infused.
Acts 2: 1-4. When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
Imagined by the writer as a parallel creation, the Pentecost event is narrated as Earthbound and powerful; the Spirit’s creativity evolving and being entrusted to the Son of Man and placed in the minds and hearts of creatures of the small planet Earth. And, as in that first intervention by the Spirit, what had been formless is to be shaped over vast spans of time, so far 2,013 years.
Who knows whether there is or was life on other planets in this vast cosmos? What we do know from the biblical narratives, notably the Pentecost account, is that the Spirit has entrusted to the human family the life and well-being of the Earth and all its inhabitants.
It is up to humankind, infused by and working with the Spirit, to put a blessing on the Earth: “Bless the Lord, all you works of the Lord; praise and exalt God above all forever” (Daniel 3). A blessing that brings God’s handiwork to fulfillment.