Yesterday marked the day of Pentecost, a feast day to remember the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles, and to celebrate God’s presence with us through the Spirit.
In the Christian tradition, the Spirit’s work is pivotal to our sanctification and mission. In sanctification, it is the Spirit who transforms us and makes us more like Christ. In mission, it is the Spirit who empowers us to witness, and who brings new life in Christ to those dead in sin.
Another way to speak of the Spirit, a way mostly forgotten by modern theology, is to speak of the Spirit as beauty. As the third person of the Trinity, the Spirit shares the beauty of the Father and the Son; all are equally beautiful. The Spirit, however, has a particular role within God’s work in the world, a role that can be described in aesthetic terms: the beautiful Spirit transforms the world to reflect the beauty of God, and empowers us to join this mission.
First, the Spirit transforms the world. Most often we think of this transformation in moral terms: people are made righteous. But, as Gregory of Nyssa so exuberantly describes, the process of becoming more like Christ is just as much becoming more beautiful as it is becoming more holy. In his homilies on the Song of Songs, Gregory speaks for the bride: “[Christ] by his love made me beautiful, exchanging his own beauty for my ugliness. For having transferred to himself the filth of my sins, he shared his own purity with me and constituted me a participant in his own beauty.” Here, Gregory equates purity and beauty, sin and ugliness. Christ’s atoning work makes the bride beautiful.
Gregory connects this work to the Spirit through his imagery of the dove. He says that in order for the soul to see the beauty of Christ, she must have her eyes “imprinted” with the dove–an image, of course, of the Holy Spirit. Only through sight transformed by the Spirit can the soul apprehend beauty.
Once able to see Christ’s beauty, the soul can then mirror his form. Gregory describes this mirroring as a process of the Spirit’s stripping away of sin, even the wounding of the soul, as a process of beautification. Through the work of the Spirit, the soul is made more and more beautiful after the image of the Son.
More recently, Patrick Sherry has connected beauty to the person and work of the Spirit in his book Spirit and Beauty. He notes that there are parallels between sanctification and beauty, that the Spirit works in our hearts to extend our “moral range.” He follows Hans Urs Von Balthasar, a pivotal writer in theological aesthetics, in arguing that it is the Spirit’s work to transform us through the apprehension of Christ’s beauty. Sherry writes,
“…the grace of the Holy Spirit creates the faculty which can apprehend and relish the form of revelation, and that his love bestows on us the ‘sensorium’ with which we perceive God and the taste for him, and that the Spirit witnesses to the Son, explains the Word, and leads the believer to see and to encounter Christ.”
While most theologians stop here, however, with the transformation of the person after the beauty of Christ, the Spirit does not make us holy simply for our own sakes. Instead, the movement of the Spirit is down and out: descending, the Spirit pushes the apostles out of Jerusalem, out in mission to carry the good news to all people. The Spirit works in us so that we might join in God’s work in the world.
Again, we usually don’t think of this work in aesthetic terms. We articulate our mission as speaking truth, acting justly, and serving others. But in all of these things we imitate Christ, and so in them we act beautifully and seek to beautify the world. We demonstrate in our lives the beautiful form of Christ, showing others his loveliness. And all of our efforts to serve others and bring justice to bear in our communities is ultimately a work of making our world more beautiful—making it reflect the peaceful, joyful beatitude of our Triune God.
In the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost, then, the Father has acted to transform the world aesthetically. And we are each, as people made beautiful after the image of the Son, called to join in God’s beautifying work of the whole creation.