Sermon: Spirit/Shekinah

By Sheri Hostetler

This is the first sermon in an Advent series on “Wings, Wisdom and Womb: Dwelling in our Feminine Divine.”  I am very much indebted to Elizabeth Johnson’s book She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse throughout this sermon. I also consulted Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb’s book She Who Dwells Within: Feminist Vision of a Renewed Judaism.

Is it possible that She has been there from the very beginning of time, from the start of all that is, and we didn’t see Her? Let’s hear the familiar words from Genesis 1: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:1-2). How many times have we read the beginning of our creation story and did not have eyes to see Her?

So that we might begin to see Her, listen to this translation, from the Orthodox Jewish Bible: “In the beginning, Elohim created the heavens and earth. And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Ruach Elohim was hovering upon the face of the waters.”

“The Ruach Elohim was hovering upon the face of the waters.” Now, we begin to see Her, as though making out the shape of a form in dim light: “Ruach Elohim,” the Spirit (Ruach) of God (Elohim). Ruach, in the gendered language of Hebrew, is grammatically female. So whenever you read the word Spirit in the Hebrew Scriptures, there is a feminine connotation to it obscured by the grammatically neutral word “Spirit.” What’s more, this Spirit, this Ruach, hovers over the waters. The original Hebrew compares to a hovering bird, although this image is obscured in some English translations. But the modern translation, The Message, captures it well: “God’s Spirit broods like a bird over the watery abyss.”

And there She is, although we still won’t see Her if we don’t know that a bird and her wings was long a symbol of female deity in ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean cultures. The Middle Eastern mother-goddess Ishtar is shown holding a pigeon; the Greek Goddess Aphrodite was symbolized by a dove. Doves were even culturally protected within that society, so close was the connection between doves and the female goddess. The dove was a well-recognized symbol of the Canaanite goddess Asherah. Throughout the Roman Empire, goddesses like Venus or Fortuna were depicted in statues with a dove resting in their hand or on their head. In other words, ancient Hebrew people would have known birds — especially doves — to be a symbol of divine female power. Is it coincidence, then, that She shows up at the beginning of their creation story? The Divine, Feminine Spirit represented as a nesting mother bird hovering over the eggs of watery chaos, those hovering wings creating chi (as Pat put it) — energy, life force.

And She continues to show up throughout Scripture. She shelters those in difficulty under the protective shadow of her wings. Listen to Psalm 61:4, just one instance of this often-used metaphor: “Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer, for you are my refuge. Let me abide in your tent forever, find refuge under the shelter of your wings.”  She bears the oppressed up on her great wings toward freedom. From Deuteronomy 32:11-12: “As an eagle stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young; as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its wings…. so God will guide Jacob.”

At Jesus’ baptism, the heavens open and She descends upon him — in the form of a dove. As theologian Elizabeth Johnson says, “the figure of the dove… links the Holy Spirit (in Christian tradition) with the broad pre-Christian tradition of divine female power. Iconographically, the dove is a messenger of the goddess and of the Holy Spirit.” When Jesus talks with Nicodemus and tells him that he must be born of the Spirit in order to enter the reign of God, he uses an obvious feminine metaphor — likening the Spirit to a woman bringing forth new life through childbirth.  What might open up for us if every time we read the word “Holy Spirit” in the New Testament, we imagined this Divine Feminine energy at work — inspiring Jesus to bring good news to the poor and setting free those who are oppressed, empowering the community of disciples after Jesus’ death, abiding with them, leading them into truth?  Jesus says that it is good that he is leaving the earth so that She, the Spirit, might come.

Let’s take a deep breath and breathe in that awareness of the hovering feminine Spirit that is in us and among us, sheltering us, bearing us up, empowering us, leading us into truth.

There’s more. Jewish mystics and scholars from the first millennium onward began to conceive of a feminine Presence of God known as the Shekinah. Shekinah comes from the Hebrew root shakhan that means “dwelling place” — it’s the root used when referring to God’s dwelling among the people or as the dwelling itself, as in mishkan. The mishkan is the moveable tabernacle the Israelites constructed to house the Presence of God. It was the Shekinah, the rabbis said, that descended upon the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle,  the place where the Divine Presence was most palpably present. It was the Shekinah that accompanies the Hebrew people in their journeys. This powerful feminine Presence manifests in scripture as fire or the cloud of glory that goes before the people as they wander in the wilderness. As Johnson says: “Wherever the righteous go, the Shekinah goes with them. No place is too hostile. She accompanies the people through the post-slavery wilderness and hundreds of years later into exile again.”  The Shekinah is She-Who-Dwells-Within, the Divine indwelling Presence that flames out through our beautiful yet broken world. She is divine glory, says Johnson, the “weighty radiance that flames out in unexpected ways in the midst of the broken world.”

Many years ago, my eyes were opened and I saw the Shekinah, the weighty radiance that flames out in the midst of our broken world. In the summer of 2000, I was driving my car through the Nevada desert, following Jerome in a rental truck as we moved to the Bay Area from Montana. It was evening, and the sky was this amazing color – a radiant peachy gold. And it wasn’t just one part of the sky that was this peachy gold color, while the rest was gray-blue; the entire sky was that color. It was stunning. I looked at the sky, and then I saw a man driving toward me in a pickup truck. And, it’s hard to explain, I suddenly felt as though I was seeing with the eyes of God. I saw how this radiance that was so apparent outside in the evening sky was also inside this man. This man was filled with the weighty radiance of God, of the Shekinah, and he was so beautiful and powerful. In fact, I felt this radiance pass through me as his truck went past. And as I realized this, I also realized that he didn’t know he was full of this radiance. I started to weep, there in my Geo Metro, trying to drive. I cried because this man was so beautiful, so full of the Shekinah, and he didn’t know it.

This indwelling radiance is wonderfully captured in a vision that the medieval mystic Hildegard of Bingen received, in which she heard the Holy Spirit speaking these words to her:

I, the highest and fiery power have kindled every living spark, and I have breathed out nothing that can die… I flame above the beauty of the fields; I shine in the waters, in the sun, the moon, and the stars. I burn. And by means of the air, wind, stir everything into quickness with a certain invisible life which sustains us all…. I, the fiery power lie hidden in these things and they blaze from me.

Let’s take a deep breath and breathe in that awareness of the weighty radiance hidden within us, within each other, within creation. Can you feel that fiery power, that shining, that living spark? That is She-Who-Dwells-Within, and She accompanies us wherever we go. No place is too hostile. That is the “ruach,” the Spirit, which can also be translated as “breath.” She-Who-Dwells-Within is as close as our own breath. Breathe deep. And breathe again. Amen.