2013 28 June

The Descent of the Spirit -Moderator’s Blog 25.06.2013

Posted in Steinbach United

The Descent of the Spirit by Gary Paterson

I was talking to a minister in Saskatchewan, and she told me a story about some well-intentioned but misguided American high school students coming up during the summer to a First Nations reserve here in Canada, eager to offer a week-long Vacation Bible School for children.

One of the first things the visitors did was hand out a picture of Jesus’ baptism for the kids to colour. There were Jesus and John and the crowd; the hills, the river; and, of course, the descending dove. Trouble was, none of the children had ever seen a dove. They are just not that common up in the north. So, working from their own experience, they coloured the bird black. “Wrong,” said the young missionaries; but the kids looked at them with puzzled expression. “But it’s a raven that’s descending, isn’t it?” they asked.

Which made me think, in a wonderful way, they were absolutely right. Why not think of the Holy Spirit as the legendary Raven, the Trickster, who is always surprising us, turning things upside down, helping us to see in new ways. In truth, I’ve always thought the dove was a bit insipid, not perhaps the most appropriate symbol for the wild, disturbing energy of the Spirit. Holy Spirit as Raven stretches our imaginations, and ensures that the Spirit will never be domesticated.

I found myself thinking back to a painting called “The Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist” by the Aboriginal artist Tony Hunt, of the Kwakiutl Nation (near Victoria, B.C.), which was presented to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission when they gathered last June in Saskatoon. John and Jesus are portrayed as Aboriginal beings; and the Holy Spirit, as a Thunderbird. Which again makes sense. What a powerful way to think of the Spirit, not as the gentle descent of the dove, but with all the energy of thunder and lightning, much like the very first Pentecost celebration. What would it be like to be visited by the thunderbird – no dove perched gently on the shoulder, but a wild beating of wings, and talons gripping the top of one’s head?


The gospel always needs to be contextualized and I am grateful to my Aboriginal brothers and sisters for Raven and Thunderbird; my theology is changed and enriched. And, in a strange way, it has encouraged my home congregation, St. Andrew’s-Wesley in Vancouver, to portray the Spirit as a great blue heron. Again, not many doves in Vancouver (though there are lots of dirty pigeons); but herons, well, they are everywhere. Sometimes standing still for endless minutes, in the hunt for food, waiting for the kairos moment to strike; or awkwardly lurching into flight, only to become a thing of beauty once they are fully launched, wings spread wide. There is a standing invitation at our church to pause whenever we see a heron in flight, and ask ourselves, “Where is the Spirit going today?”

Context; enculturation; new symbols, and imagery. It’s how faith continues to grow. So, how might the Spirit be imagined in your part of the country?